Credit: "No Life Before Coffee" via Flickr CC

A love story for privacy, warnings about website trackers, and implications past your laptop screen; what lurks beneath.

Tracking is ubiquitous on the internet. Specifically, the kind that involves creating and keeping a record of one’s travels around the internet by augmenting some of the programming in your browser. A record more thorough than that found in the history tab, and of the few people that understand it, the numbers that take action are predictably small. This isn’t rabbit season, predefined and finite—it’s money season, and as Drake says, business is “’bout it every day, every day, every day / Like we sittin’ on the bench,… we don’t really play / Every day, every day, fuck what anybody say.”

Tracking your browsing activity is two-fold:

  1. It creates advertising based around your activity. For example: you’re planning a vacation, and soon after you start comparing prices for flights and hotels, you notice the advertisements you see anywhere over the internet are now pitching you hotels or flights to your potential destination.
  2. It provides a curated/personalized browsing experience. As technology becomes more complex, so too the specificity of preference tracking. Companies track the activities, system data, and browsing habits of people who visit their sites, with hopes to continually improve the user experience of their visitors. This is part of an ongoing process which changes both how data is presented to a user and the data itself.

ADVERTISING

Consider the history tab in your browser. It shows you all the places you’ve been, in case you need to backtrack and find something. The history tab is the road map of your daily, weekly, and even monthly travels, the most readily accessible data set produced by your browsing habits. Anyone who has access to this data can form a large series of assumptions about what you do, how you do it, what you buy, how you buy it, and how much time you invest in it—whatever “it” may be. Do you frequent the Guardian as opposed to the New York Times or USA Today? Do you visit any traditional news media pages at all? Do you prefer visiting Bloomberg.com or your personal trading account?

Your internet history effectively creates an image of you, from which even the most rudimentary analysis will describe patterns that are very fertile ground for advertising and marketing companies.

WHAT, ME WORRY?

In the infamous words of Fox news, “some people say” that this type of surveillance (because that’s what it is) doesn’t matter. It’s purely benign and passive, so why bother caring, let alone actively working against its collection? It’s about privacy, and to me, there’s almost no price too high to pay to keep it intact. Where I go is my personal business (literally, my presence is business for others), and the point to make is that if marketers were following you as you made your rounds shopping, wouldn’t you call that stalking?

Placing a high value on privacy means making certain sacrifices and being more selective about allowances and the many mundane social contracts we engage in daily. I don’t fill out online surveys and I don’t do the social networking thing (no FB, G+ or anything like that, thank you very much). I do not wish to broadcast my information, and the exercise of my personal choice lies in direct conflict with advertising. Where I go is my business, and it is an advertiser’s business only so long as I am in their store—digital or otherwise.

As a disclaimer, I’m a bit of a privacy nut and also a private person. Thankfully, not to the point where I avoid all physical interaction, but I admittedly take it more seriously than many people, especially in the age of internet, where everybody knows your user-name, where to find you, what you look like, what you eat, what color your underwear is, and how you like your sex. The internet does not forgive, it does not forget. Expect it.

It is neither my buying nor browsing or clicking habits that lead to further investment of time and monies—it is the continued efforts of the taste-maker and content creator.

It is neither my buying nor browsing or clicking habits that lead to further investment of time and monies—it is the continued efforts of the taste-maker and content creator.That’s a lot of information to have under anyone’s microscope, and in light of that, I try to keep the tracking and monitoring of my activities on the internet in the dark. I use three or four different anti-tracker programs, depending on what computer I’m using; I generally try to be conscious of my browsing habits, keeping in mind that I am being watched and my habits are monitored (while at work, they most surely are—don’t know if it’s a legal requirement, but I know it’s practice); I make sure that my browsing habits change as I move around. Since eliminating advertising is sadly impossible if one decides to use the internet, and given that the nature of the ads I see is related to my browsing history, thanks to the trackers, I’d like to give as little data away as possible. In other words, I am loath to give anyone any more information with which they can try to sell me something more efficiently. I am not in the business of emptying my pockets for anyone’s gain but my own, doing my best to keep the buying power literally in my hands.

Information that gets recorded, held, and monetized is collected without our explicit agreement, which is where things start to get ethically (and legally) grey. Similar to the way we accept video surveillance when entering into a business establishment—most places do not have the “Smile! You’re being recorded!” signs posted—does visiting a website fall under the same sort of social contract? Where is the line regarding what kind of surveillance and observation is acceptable, socially or ethically, and what isn’t? Cameras on the sales floor? Fine. In the bathrooms? Not so much. In the case of a website, the metaphorical cameras are everywhere; there is nothing which isn’t a sales floor.

CONTENT

Since digital tracking software crunching your browsing history can provide you with more relevant (or so they hope) advertising, why not the same treatment for content as well? Shouldn’t those algorithms suggest better content? Have no fear, for they do this too.

Trackers do many things in the analytics capacity for websites: aside from advertising, they also check what kind of browser you use and what kind operating system you have. To most, again, this doesn’t seem like much of anything; who cares if they know I use a Mac or a PC or Strawberry/raspberrypi to look at their site?

Orbitz does: "Orbitz Worldwide Inc. has found that people who use Apple Inc.’s Mac computers spend as much as 30% more a night on hotels, so the online travel agency is starting to show them different, and sometimes costlier, travel options than Windows visitors see," reports The Wall Street Journal on search results skewed by operating system. As part of that article, the WSJ conducted a reader poll questioning if operating systems should be used to differentiate search results: as I write this, less than a week later, almost thirty percent of the poll-takers had voted “yes.”

This blows my mind. Just because you use one type of computer as opposed to another, should you be encouraged to spend more money? To me (though clearly not to everyone), this is unacceptable. I am not comfortable with anyone, especially a data mining crew that explicitly does not serve my best interests (rather, those of someone else) being the curator of the content I experience. Clearly, trackers on the Orbitz website can filter and dictate the nature of the content we find and are directed to. But what if we expand the scope from that of airline tickets to news, for example? Problematic, no?

I am inherently distrustful of any organization that tries to sell me something because I browse or buy in a particular manner, or use a particular machine for said activities; I am loath to have my habits known, as they can then be used to entrap (read: market things to) me. Things you own, by this virtue of associative value and demographic targeting, own you.

I believe that the humans creating the content that attracts me, be it tables or books, are the best barometer for my interests. If someone whose work I respect is intrigued by something, the creator of the work I know and trust will be what leads me to investigate the new: a creator I follow blogs something, and given that I like their work, I look at the link. It is neither my buying nor browsing or clicking habits that lead to further investment of time and monies—it is the continued efforts of the taste-maker and content creator.

The situation does NOT work as follows: buy object, get catalog/collection of promotional materials, feel amazement and joy and uniqueness (all of which is completely fabricated), spend more money, repeat ad-nauseum until deep in credit card debt, leading to bankruptcy and debtor’s prison.

I do not, nor will I voluntarily, participate in the use of trackers. I do not wish to be forced into and chained inside a proverbial room of products and content. I choose my influx of data, trusting full well myself to be the curator and assuring that I have the ability to exit any building that is content and sales floor in its entirety, should the need arise.

Due in large part to tracking software, there are fewer and fewer buildings that I wish to enter in the first place.

About the Author

Max Gi is the Managing Editor for What Are These Ideas. He has a fetish for tech and words and pictures; throw all three in a room, he thinks it's a party. Likes coffee, whiskey, rice, veggies. This also makes a party. Believes the diet above is why bugs don't bite him, for his blood must be poison.

Contact:

Email: matty_roth@whataretheseideas.com //
Twitter: @Magatsukun //

My Informations, You Cannot Haz It


By Max Gi //
July 14, 2012 //
Essay //



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