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Mar 10, 2008

Privacy. Who's Peeking?

Publishers have no privacy. What about users? Who's peeking at your activities? Is privacy about avoiding targeted ads?

Publishers Have No Privacy

Whether a website or blog, every page is immediately visible to the billion users on the Internet. Publishers opt into each stage.

  • Hundreds of web robots, like Alta Vista, Google, Yahoo, etc., seek and rummage through every public IP address (i.e. a domain name maps to an IP address) to discover new sites and content.
  • Blog robots, like Technorati, digest weblog contents, almost immediately.
  • Widgets, like AddThis, Feedburner, FriendFeed, etc., report activities to publishers, networks, and sometimes to users.
  • Every adNet participation, such as Adbrite, Advertising.com, AdSense, Linkshare, YieldManager, etc., provides the network with detailed views.

In short, publishers can't keep secrets. Dozens, if not hundreds, of networks can see details on your content and views of your content. The first amendment of the US Bill of Rights guarantees free speech. The open Internet self-regulates the relevancy of speech.

Tracking Individuals

As networks track publishers, they also gather data about users. Here are the ways data is collected.

Any Device Leaks Data

Any device that connects to a network can be tracked. These devices include computers, phones, PDAs, financial cards, and dozens of emerging devices. Who is able to track the devices?

  • The manufacturer of the device like Apple, Dell, HP, Motorola, Nokia, etc.
  • The source of the platform software like Apple, Firefox, McAfee, Microsoft, Palm, Symantec, etc.
  • Credit card transactions through banks and financial intermediaries
  • The ISP (i.e. Internet Service Provider) like AT&T, BT, Comcast, Sprint Verizon, etc.

Note that the list includes some of the largest companies in the world.

Software Leaks Data

Each toolbar, application, or gadget leaks data. Here are some examples.

  • Toolbars from Amazon, Blogger, eBay, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc. have the means to report data.
  • Alexa, compete, comScore, Neilsen, and Quantcast purposefully report user actions.
  • Flash, iTunes, Media player, PDF readers track data
  • Downloaded games

What Can a Website See?

When users frequent a website, what can the publisher see? How can they use the information?

  • Opt-in profile information at AOL, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Myspace, Yahoo, etc.
  • Server logs show who views what
  • Search portals collect every keyword
  • Commerce sites know what you bought
  • Web services and open APIs share across sites
  • Cookies tie across sites
Public Profile Information

The US first amendment grants freedom of speech and press. What public information is posted about individuals?
  • Newspaper articles and interviews
  • Yellow and white page directories
  • Event attendees
  • Private email exchanges posted by individuals
Anger Toward Advertising Networks

Despite the volumes of data available about private citizens, public anger has focused on ad targeting.
A study of California adults last year found that 85 percent thought sites
should not be allowed to track their behavior around the Web to show them ads,
according to the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the
University of California at Berkeley, which conducted the study.
Advertising is the tail end of the Internet ecosystem. Does it make sense to blame advertising? Is search aggregation of data about an individual the real issue?


One benefit of tracking is that authorities have a rich tool to identify hackers, criminals, and terrorists. However, is the loss of individual privacy too high a price to pay?

We can't give up technology and avoid the Internet. Is Internet privacy a problem? What's the solution?

Advertising won't go away. Is privacy an ad serving problem? Is there a self-regulating solution?

Published: March 10, 2008
To Aim Ads, Web Is Keeping Closer Eye on You, By LOUISE STORY

A famous New Yorker cartoon from 1993 showed two dogs at a computer, with one
saying to the other, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

March 9, 2008, 11:19 pm
How Do They Track You? Let Us Count the Ways, By Louise Story, New York Times

The comScore study tallied five types of “data collection events” on the Internet for 15 large media companies. Four of these events are actions that occur on the sites the media companies run: Pages displayed, search queries entered, videos played, and advertising displayed. Each time one of those four things occurs, there is a conversation between the user’s computer and the server of the company that owns the site or serves the ad.

The fifth area that comScore looked at was ads served on pages anywhere on the Web by advertising networks owned by the media companies. These include text ads provided by Google’s AdSense network, for example, and display ads from AOL’s Advertising.com unit. Ad networks add the ability for these companies to note where you are on other Web sites when they serve you an ad. Google, for example, can note that your Internet Protocol address is on Kelly Blue Book, if it serves you an AdSense ad there.

Federal Trade Commission - Privacy Initiatives

Government Site that is run by the Federal Trade Commission. Information about
how the government can help protect kids and the general public.

Electronic Privacy Information Center

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) focuses public attention on emerging civil liberties, privacy, First Amendmen issues and works to promote ...

Privacy Electronic Frontier Foundation

Campaign for online privacy and security includes news, links and resources.

Privacy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves or
information about themselves and thereby reveal themselves selectively. ...

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