Ohmigod, companies are tracking what we look at online!

March 10th, 2008 by Grace Meng

Breaking news from the New York Times.

What’s truly interesting about this article, though, isn’t that the New York Times is announcing as “news” something that’s been going on for a very long time. Rather, the New York Times, even while devoting space on its front page, doesn’t really seem to have a point.

The article tries to distinguish itself from vague alarms raised by privacy advocates with data, the results of a study done with comCast measuring “data collection events,” each time “consumer data was zapped back to the Web companies’ servers.” (Even though the New York Times has produced some of the prettiest data graphics in recent memory, this one looks like something created on Excel and conveys little more than a flurry of numbers.) But the overwhelming impression left by the article is that companies are trying to target advertising, and some might do it better than others, rather than that extensive personal information is being collected. So then it isn’t surprising that several of the comments in response to the Bits blog post are about how they never click on ads, or how stupid these companies are in sending them ads for things they’re not interested in, or how they’ve blocked pop-up ads on their browser.

After all, the article mentions only briefly what kind of information is being collected: “the person’s zip code, a search for anything from vacation information, or a purchase of prescription drugs or other intimate items.” The article cites Jules Polonetsky, chief privacy officer for AOL, “[who] cautions that not all the data at every company is used together. Much of it is stored separate,” yet the author doesn’t explain the significance of that statement. The article doesn’t mention that even if consumer data is stripped of “identifiers” like a user name, individual identification could happen easily through the combination of datasets.

I would love to see an article by a mainstream publication that addresses this issue in a truly comprehensive and thoughtful way. What’s missing in the conversation started by this article is not only a fuller analysis of how personal information is being collected and what dangers there are for individual privacy, but also a nuanced discussion of that information’s value and what it means for “a handful of big players” to hold most of it. The article ends citing a study of California adults, 85% of whom thought sites should not be allowed to track their behavior around the Web to show them ads. But does that statistic really capture what’s at stake?

P.S. Is AOL’s innocent penguin happy or merely surprised that anchovy ads are being sent to him?

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2 Responses to “Ohmigod, companies are tracking what we look at online!”

  1. Mimi Yin says:

    A tangential but relevant question:

    Is advertising truly the most profitable use of all this data?

    Could it be that the treasure trove of personal information available to advertisers is *only* valuable to advertisers?

    Or perhaps, legal constraints around what kinds of personal information can be collected without the individual’s knowledge or consent is limiting the kinds of data-driven products and services companies can offer. For example, companies aren’t allowed to mix internal data sets for fear of learning “too much” about any particular customer or user.

    But I want to know about all this stuff that we’re afraid to find out! I don’t need to know exactly who’s doing what and where they live. But I imagine that today’s privacy policies result in huge lost opportunities for providing rich data-driven services.

    In other words, what if our very own privacy fears are keeping us trapped in a system that’s main byproduct is more creative ways to advertise to people?

    Perhaps if companies would only give us more compelling examples of how our personal information could be re-purposed, more than 15% of us would be okay with giving it up.

    But therein lies the problem: Who’s going to give it up first?

  2. […] thought I thought this New York Times article on data collection wasn’t very informative, a New York legislator was sufficiently moved to propose this […]

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