Public Like Me*

If you wonder what it is like to be a Foursquaring, data-tracked, social-media denizen then read Living in Public: What Happens When You Throw Privacy Out the Window on Lifehacker. The author, who normally does not expose herself to location tracking, online data collection, and personalized ads, abandoned her clickstream reserve for a few weeks to experience life with a constant trail of digital breadcrumbs. She reports it had some positive aspects but not enough to convert her. (Thanks, E.C.)

*Few of my readers will conjure up the association this subject line intends. Click here if you want to get the joke.

Revisionist History

Attention all GMailers, GCalenderers, Google+ers, and other Google users: Google’s new privacy policy goes into effect March 1, a/k/a tomorrow. As TechNewsDaily puts it, “all the data Google automatically gathers about you, such as the sites you visit, will be dumped into one virtual bucket with your name on it. While you can’t opt out of the new approach without abandoning Google sites, you can erase your browsing history.” Erasing your browsing history is easy; the linked article explains the steps. I just erased mine, after first checking out the oldest saved information–from 2005. Seven years of searches almost every day, stored under my profile in chronological order. I can’t think of one good reason not to erase it. You have just a few more hours to do so.

Unspoken Agendas

Recently the WSJ conducted a panel discussion about online privacy. Panelist Christopher Soghoian’s perspective on Facebook resonates for me:

Although consumers knowingly share information via Facebook, the privacy issues associated with that company are not related to the way consumers use it, but rather the other things the company does. These include the tricks the company has pulled to expose users’ private data to third-party app developers, the changing privacy defaults for profile data, as well as Facebook’s covert surveillance of your browsing activities on non-Facebook websites, as long as a “Like” button is present (even if you don’t click on it).

The dirty secret of the Web is that the “free” content and services that consumers enjoy come with a hidden price: their own private data. Many of the major online advertising companies are not interested in the data that we knowingly and willingly share. Instead, these parasitic firms covertly track our web-browsing activities, search behavior and geolocation information. Once collected, this mountain of data is analyzed to build digital dossiers on millions of consumers, in some cases identifying us by name, gender, age as well as the medical conditions and political issues we have researched online.

Although we now regularly trade our most private information for access to social-networking sites and free content, the terms of this exchange were never clearly communicated to consumers.

(emphasis mine)

No One Cares But DoubleClick

In his CNN Tech article “With ‘real-time’ apps, Facebook is always watching” John D. Sutter explains the effects of real-time apps:

In the old world of Facebook, I would have to click that I “liked” a song for it to show up on my Facebook profile page. That’s something you have to think about: “OK, I really like this song, and I really want all of my friends to know that I’m listening to it right now.” Now, sharing is both passive and automatic. It’s a choice you make in advance — one time — and never again.

And so it goes with all kinds of the new “real-time” apps.

Since I’ve logged in to Yahoo! News with Facebook, every time I read an article on that site, it goes to my Timeline.

The same is true for Hulu and TV shows.

And for the Internet game “Words with Friends.” When I play a Scrabble-style word in that game, it will show up on Facebook, along with an image of the current playing board.

Which raises an obvious question: who could possibly want to receive such a constant stream of mundane information about one’s friends, or especially about one’s “friends?” One obvious answer is “no one with a life of their own.”  My spouse does not want to follow every Scrabble hand I play with my son. I do not want to know every song she plays while hanging out in the kitchen. I see a group of friends just about every day for coffee, we talk about everything that captures our brief attention spans, yet being notified of every video they watched online is TMI.  We filter our experiences, we decide which of our friends might be interested in which stories, we curate.  This word is five minutes from overuse but its prevalence evidences our response to the problem of too much information.

To the question “who could possibly want to receive such a constant stream of mundane information” the other obvious, more relevant, and more truthful answer is “anyone who can use that information stream to sell me stuff.” One’s virtual and actual friends will tune it out as the background data buzz that surrounds every Facebook user like a thick cloud of noisy midges. Advertisers will collect, collate, examine, and evaluate each vibrating data point to construct interest and activity profiles. Then they will market to the midges.

This is no great insight. Sutter’s article makes the same point. What moves me is the breathtaking transparency of Facebook’s game. Facebook’s interest in serving its users is overwhelmed by its interest in users as data generators. Real-time apps provide a means to calibrate with unparalleled precision the relationship between user data and vendors of stuff. Facebooko ergo sum:  I Facebook therefore I am–a consumer first, last, and always.

TMI

To me it sounds like a version of hell, but as reported by the NY Times there’s a growing market for “automatically tracking personal browsing histories for public viewing.”  Dscover.me let’s users “[a]utomagically [sic, and yuck] share what you’re up to on the web with friends and followers in real-time. Discover what your network is viewing online and see what you’ve been missing out on!”  Sitesimon.com let’s you “share your clickstream automatically using our browser add-on.”

Does no one have a filter?  Can anyone think for themselves?  I come across lots of new sites.  I share maybe 1 in 50 if it offers a uniquely helpful service, and then only with a few people.

I hate the concept.  I’m sure it will be successful.

New EU Data Privacy Law

U.S. lawmakers dither over new, stricter laws governing online data tracking.  Meanwhile, a EU privacy directive which goes into effect on May 25 requires EU websites to obtain “explicit consent” from users to gather online browsing and shopping data.  Excluded are cookies tracking items placed in website shopping baskets; otherwise, based on this article, the consent directive is comprehensive.  Websites are determining what steps are necessary to comply with the law.  One possible result is “that after 25 May, users see many more pop-up windows and dialogue boxes asking them to let sites gather data.”

One More Privacy Post

From an article two weeks ago in the WSJ’s What They Know series:  ‘Scrapers’ Dig Deep for Data on Web:

At 1 a.m. on May 7, the website PatientsLikeMe.com noticed suspicious activity on its “Mood” discussion board. There, people exchange highly personal stories about their emotional disorders, ranging from bipolar disease to a desire to cut themselves.  It was a break-in. A new member of the site, using sophisticated software, was “scraping,” or copying, every single message off PatientsLikeMe’s private online forums.

The scraper?  Nielson Co. “a global leader in measurement and information.”  Of course by mentioning Nielson in this blog and visiting Nielson’s website  they can add one more bit of clickstream data to my database entry.

Monday’s Privacy Two-Fer

Another WSJ headline about a privacy breach:  Google Snared Emails During Data Collection It begins

Google Inc. acknowledged Friday the cars its uses to collect data for its online mapping service had inadvertently gathered entire emails and passwords, a disclosure that prompted the Internet giant to appoint a privacy chief and tighten its policies.  The Mountain View, Calif., Internet search giant said it wanted to delete the information as quickly as possible. It also announced several steps its (sic) would take to improve its internal privacy and security practices.