David Kirkpatrick

July 31, 2010

Food for online privacy thought

Three recent articles to ponder about how much — or really, how little — your online privacy is protected.

First up, from the Wall Street Journal, your data is money. I’m pretty sure just about anyone who’s been using the web for any amount of time knows all about tracking cookies, data mining and all that. This article goes into detail on just how much, and how detailed, information top visited websites collect on visitors.

From the link:

Hidden inside Ashley Hayes-Beaty’s computer, a tiny file helps gather personal details about her, all to be put up for sale for a tenth of a penny.

The file consists of a single code— 4c812db292272995e5416a323e79bd37—that secretly identifies her as a 26-year-old female in Nashville, Tenn.

The code knows that her favorite movies include “The Princess Bride,” “50 First Dates” and “10 Things I Hate About You.” It knows she enjoys the “Sex and the City” series. It knows she browses entertainment news and likes to take quizzes.

“Well, I like to think I have some mystery left to me, but apparently not!” Ms. Hayes-Beaty said when told what that snippet of code reveals about her. “The profile is eerily correct.”

Ms. Hayes-Beaty is being monitored by Lotame Solutions Inc., a New York company that uses sophisticated software called a “beacon” to capture what people are typing on a website—their comments on movies, say, or their interest in parenting and pregnancy. Lotame packages that data into profiles about individuals, without determining a person’s name, and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers. Ms. Hayes-Beaty’s tastes can be sold wholesale (a batch of movie lovers is $1 per thousand) or customized (26-year-old Southern fans of “50 First Dates”).

“We can segment it all the way down to one person,” says Eric Porres, Lotame’s chief marketing officer.

Also from the WSJ in the same series is an article with more on the same as above with an emphasis on consumer-tracking technology used by the top 50 sites.

From the link:

The tracking files represent the leading edge of a lightly regulated, emerging industry of data-gatherers who are in effect establishing a new business model for the Internet: one based on intensive surveillance of people to sell data about, and predictions of, their interests and activities, in real time.

The Journal’s study shows the extent to which Web users are in effect exchanging personal data for the broad access to information and services that is a defining feature of the Internet.

In an effort to quantify the reach and sophistication of the tracking industry, the Journal examined the 50 most popular websites in the U.S. to measure the quantity and capabilities of the “cookies,” “beacons” and other trackers installed on a visitor’s computer by each site. Together, the 50 sites account for roughly 40% of U.S. page-views.

The 50 sites installed a total of 3,180 tracking files on a test computer used to conduct the study. Only one site, the encyclopedia Wikipedia.org, installed none. Twelve sites, including IAC/InterActive Corp.’s Dictionary.com, Comcast Corp.’s Comcast.net and Microsoft Corp.’s MSN.com, installed more than 100 tracking tools apiece in the course of the Journal’s test.

And not to leave the government out of the online privacy picture, this PhysOrg story on the access the Federal Bureau of Investigation has to your online data, including email, really adds to online privacy concerns. Or at least it should.

From the final link:

Federal law requires communications providers to produce records in counterintelligence investigations to the FBI, which doesn’t need a judge’s approval and court order to get them.

They can be obtained merely with the signature of a special agent in charge of any FBI field office and there is no need even for a suspicion of wrongdoing, merely that the records would be relevant in a counterintelligence or counterterrorism investigation. The person whose records the government wants doesn’t even need to be a suspect.

The bureau’s use of these so-called national security letters to gather information has a checkered history.

The bureau engaged in widespread and serious misuse of its authority to issue the letters, illegally collecting data from Americans and foreigners, the Justice Department’s inspector general concluded in 2007. The bureau issued 192,499 national security letter requests from 2003 to 2006.

In this June 28, 2010, file photo, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., gestures on Capitol Hill in Washington. Invasion of privacy in the Internet age. The administration’s proposal to change the Electronic Communications Privacy Act “raises serious privacy and civil liberties concerns,” Leahy said Thursday, July 29, 2010, in a statement. Expanding the reach of law enforcement to snoop on e-mail traffic or on Web surfing. Those are among the criticisms being aimed at the FBI as it tries to update a key surveillance law.

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

1 Comment »

  1. […] cookies — David Kirkpatrick @ 3:19 pm I ran a muli-part post covering some of the more chilling aspects of online privacy last weekend, largely quoting the excellent Wall Street Journal series on the subject. This weekend […]

    Pingback by An argument against online privacy regulation « David Kirkpatrick — August 7, 2010 @ 3:19 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: