The internet used to provide users with anonymity, or as the New Yorker cartoon (right) said, "On the Internet, noboby knows you're a dog". However, the internet has become a method of tracking people and gaining information about them.
According to one Wall Street Journal study, the top fifty Internet sites, from CNN to Yahoo to MSN, install an average of 64 data-laden cookies and personal tracking beacons each. Search for a word like “depression” on Dictionary.com, and the site installs up to 223 tracking cookies and beacons on your computer so that other Web sites can target you with antidepressants. Share an article about cooking on ABC News, and you may be chased around the Web by ads for Teflon-coated pots… The new Internet doesn’t just know you’re a dog; it knows your breed and wants to sell you a bowl of premium kibble.
Facebook, Google and other internet companies offer free services in return for information about users that they can sell to advertisers and other interested parties. That information may include intimate details of the users’ lives, depending on what they put into their social media pages or search engines. “Your smooth new iPhone knows exactly where you go, whom you call, what you read; with its built-in microphone, gyroscope, and GPS, it can tell whether you’re walking or in a car or at a party.”
Almost every website accumulates information about its visitors, who they are and what they’re interested in, and that information follows people around the internet and is shared between companies. If an internet user is logged into Gmail or Facebook while they are browsing on the internet, Google and Facebook can track their internet activities and record data about them and, with the help of tracking cookies, even place personalised advertisements on third party websites.
Reference: Eli Pariser. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin. 2011, p. 118.
Banks are beginning to use social data to decide to whom to offer loans: If your friends don’t pay on time, it’s likely that you’ll be a deadbeat too. “A decision is going to be made on creditworthiness based on the creditworthiness of your friends,”… Part of what’s troubling about this world is that companies aren’t required to explain on what basis they’re making these decisions. And as a result, you can get judged without knowing it and without being able to appeal.
The appeal of anonymity on the internet is becoming less achievable. As the internet becomes more commercialised, anonymity and false identities cannot be tolerated. “BlueCava is compiling a database of every computer, smartphone, and online-enabled gadget in the world, which can be tied to the individual people who use them. Even if you’re using the highest privacy settings in your Web browser, in other words, your hardware may soon give you away.”
Increasingly use of the internet requires individuals to hand over large amounts of information about themselves “to large and relatively faceless institutions, for handling and use by strangers—unknown, unseen, and all too frequently, unresponsive.”
Amazon uses personalisation to offer customers recommendations based on their previous purchases. It is able to see where customers had similar preferences and predict almost instantaneously what one customer might be interested in from the buying patterns of previous customers.
Reference: Eli Pariser. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin. 2011, p. 32.
At Amazon, the push for more user data is never-ending: When you read books on your Kindle, the data about which phrases you highlight, which pages you turn, and whether you read straight through or skip around are all fed back into Amazon’s servers and can be used to indicate what books you might like next.
However whilst algorithms work out what books to recommend, books may be promoted as a result of payment from publishers to override those algorithms. Customers don’t know the difference.
Reference: Eli Pariser. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin. 2011, p. 109.
And once a company like Amazon has figured out your profile by offering you different kinds of deals over time and seeing which ones you responded to, there’s no reason it couldn’t then sell that information to other companies.
“[Y]our behaviour is now a commodity” and companies are increasingly sharing information about you, behind the scenes so that “the Web is becoming increasingly integrated”.
Personal data companies such as Acxiom and BlueKai collect data behind the internet scenes gleaned from everyone’s internet activities and sell it on, every click that someone makes, “click signal”, provides information that is auctioned off and the more personal information those clicks reveal the higher price they will get because it enables companies to target advertisements for goods and services that are personally relevant. “Acxiom alone has accumulated an average of 1,500 pieces of data on each person on its database—which includes 96 percent of Americans—along with data about everything from their credit scores to whether they’ve bought medication for incontinence.”
Reference: Eli Pariser. The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You. New York: Penguin. 2011, p. 43.
But here’s what Acxiom knows about 96 percent of American households and half a billion people worldwide: the names of their family members, their current and past addresses, how often they pay their credit card bills whether they own a dog or a cat (and what breed it is), whether they are right-handed or left-handed, what kinds of medication they use (based on pharmacy records) ... the list of data points is about 1,500 items long.
Acxiom is not a company many people have heard of but its data is used by most large US companies including credit card companies. Internet companies make extra money from selling on to companies like Acxiom information they gain from their customers. In less than a second a flight search website can pass information onto an airline that can then show you advertisements for relevant flights on various websites you subsequently visit. Sites that know a person’s location from their mobile device can sell that information on to advertisers to target the person when they are in a shopping centre, for example.