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The Illusion of Web Privacy

Posted by Ben Wilkinson on October 24th, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Let's be clear - web privacy is important. When you're surfing at 2am, you really don't want to be concerned with who might be tracking what you're looking at online. For centuries, people have expected what they do in the privacy of their own homes wouldn't be publicized to the outside world, and for the most part, that's the case. In general, people at parties don't know what kinds of websites you visit, your colleagues at work don't know that you spend two hours a day playing Farmville, and your girlfriend probably doesn't know about your match.com account.

But let's be honest with ourselves - the advent of the internet has changed everything, including our expectation of privacy. Recently, there has been a bit of an uproar about online privacy, not just on Facebook, but with certain ways that advertisers and agencies target consumers with ads. These two incidents, while generating a lot of press, are not new to those who are familiar to how the web works and how advertising on the web is becoming more and more sophisticated.

Facebook (which is has been in hot water with consumer advocacy groups regarding privacy since it launched) was recently criticized for the way data is handled on its site by third party app developers. Here's the smoking gun:

Many of the most popular applications, or “apps,” on the social-networking site Facebook Inc. have been transmitting identifying information—in effect, providing access to people’s names and, in some cases, their friends’ names—to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

Seriously. Read that again, your name and maybe your friends name. First of all, this is ridiculous. Secondly, any ecommerce site that you visit on a daily basis probably knows more about you than the innocuous experience described above. For example, most ecommerce sites track the following"

- the time you visited the site
- the total amount of time you spent on the site
- the site you last visited before you came to the ecommerce site
- how many clicks you make on the ecommerce sites
- what products you looked at while you were on the ecommerce site
- the likelihood of making a purchase in the future

And the interesting thing is they can do all of this analysis without you even logging in.

Another recent practice by advertisers and agencies that has drawn a lot of ire from consumer advocacy groups is a practice known as retargeting or remarketing. At the most basic level, when you visit a website like eBay, Overstock or Zappos and then navigate away from those sites, those companies will retarget you with ads that promote products that those companies sell. Some people in the baby boom generation feel this is just too creepy for them and are trying to sue. It's doubtful that any of these lawsuits will get anywhere. Why? Simply because of the amount of data involved.

If your a consumer and you don't want your data passed around, what do you do? Well, one answer is don't surf the web. However, that answer is becoming more and more illogical, given how much the web is becoming apart of our daily lives. The other answer is to clear your web cookies and flash cookies often. Also, be sure to install an ad-blocker.

It will be interesting to see how all the litigation of advertising data collection issue sorts itself out. The ultimate reality is that advertisers and data collection companies will always find new and inventive ways to show consumers more relevant and interesting ads. What's more, the economic law of "there's no such thing as a free lunch" applies to the web as well.

One Response to “The Illusion of Web Privacy”

  1. Devan says:

    Another great post Ben!

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