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Do I Know You? Tracking Activity on the Web July 31, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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This is one of the most significant articles on the Web that I’ve read in a long time.  If you’re interested in getting your hands around privacy and the Web, this is the place to start.

The Wall Street Journal performed what in most respects seems like a common sense experiment.  It visited the top 50 Web sites in terms of visitors, then counted the number of cookies installed on the test computer.

The number was 3180.  Of these, 2224 were installed by advertising networks and similar companies that collect data on visitors, follow them around the Internet to other sites using the same ad network, and make predictions on the demographics and buying habits of those visitors.  In some cases, they are tailoring ads, pages, and offers based on that identification.  For example, one person interviewed was at one time looking for weight loss alternatives; that person now gets weight loss ads generated on one or more ad networks.

Amusingly (almost), several of the companies contacted professed no knowledge that their websites were installing that many cookies, and that they were collecting that level of data on individual visitors.

Incredible as such a claim may sound, I tend to believe them; never ascribe something to conspiracy when sheer incompetence will do.  It seems negligent for a company not to know what is happening on its website, but I’m not surprised that’s the case.

Here’s where it gets very interesting.  All, including (and especially) the ad networks collecting and selling this data deny that these activities are privacy-related, because none of the data is connected with an actual name.

Now, I honestly don’t know.  Is the door to our privacy opened by our name and nothing more, or is the act of collecting this level of information and using it to build a prototype of specific individuals a violation of the privacy of those individuals?  Is association actions with names the key, or is recording and analyzing those actions enough?

Even more, some of us may actually approve, even to the level of associating our name with our Web browsing actions, because it means the information we receive may be more relevant to us.  I personally prefer a degree of randomness in my interactions, in hopes of learning things that would never have occurred to me to learn, but others may be comforted to know that they Web knows who they are, and is responding to their unique needs.

I’ve touched on the topic of privacy and the Web; this article rips the topic wide open.  It provides no answers, but let everyone know the score.

The  important thing to remember is that the use of this technology is in its infancy.  At least from the standpoint of commerce, we seem to be heading in the direction of a personal and dynamically customized Web.

It’s time we decided whether or not this is what we want.

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