First it was door-to-door, then it was the dreaded telemarketing phone call, now our very moves on the web are being tracked by unsolicited advertisers in order to “customize” our experience, according to a new study released this past Tuesday by Stanford University’s Computer Security Laboratory.
A “customized” experience? Well, that doesn’t sound too bad…at first glance. After all, as a consumer living in fast-paced distraction-heavy North American society, wouldn’t it make sense to be able to cut through the crud and get to the goods actually of potential interest to you, without any effort exuded on your part for that matter? Further, considering that marketing has become so pervasive in society it‘s literally impossible to block out PR messages even in one’s own home, it’s not as though this seems like anything new. “Seems” however is the key word in that sentence.
In the good old days, you could always just shut the door or hang up the phone. The difference in modern times is distinct: the average Internet user is completely oblivious to the fact their surfing history is being tracked, let alone sent to various companies, without their knowledge or consent.
As the study revealed, “More than half of the 185 high-traffic websites looked at shared a consumer’s username or user ID with another site: signing up on the NBC website shared a user’s email address with seven other companies, while viewing a local ad on the Home Depot website sent a user’s name and email address to 13 companies. Google, Facebook, comScore and Quantcast were among the top recipients of username and user ID information.”
Jon Leibowitz, Chairman for the Federal Trade Commission stated that although the FTC has no intention of disallowing marketing companies from participating in “behavioural advertising”, the protection of consumers’ online privacy is at the forefront of their concerns. Irrespective of this, legislation put forth to allow consumers to enable a “do not track” option in regard to their Internet use has seen limited success, thus far.
On the upside of things, users of Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s Gmail can be somewhat alleviated from “cyberrazzi paranoia” as both companies have recently taken independent steps to protect the privacy of their users. While Mozilla has released a “do not track” feature customers can activate by visiting their Internet Browser Privacy Options, signed in Gmail users will automatically be re-directed to an encrypted search form (check to see if the URL begins with “https”) to enable anonymous surfing.
John Simpson, Privacy Project Director for the non-for-profit organization, Consumer Watchdog, is among those pushing for the approval of “do not track” Internet use legislation.