They Are Watching You
no mistake; you are being watched. Surely you knew this already.
Remember your last trip to a store? Were there not cameras in the sky? Walmart is
an example of a store that makes no bones about putting
you on video. In their parking lots. Inside stores. Even watching you key
your PIN number at checkout. When you shop at Walmart (and most anywhere else)
you are being watched. The thing is, you have a choice – you can choose to shop somewhere
that doesn’t use video surveillance. Or not shop at all; pay someone to shop for you.
I can imagine a hundred ways to avoid being monitored, but you will give up convenience
and it will almost certainly be more expensive.
The same is true on the web.
The Wall Street Journal ran
a series recently about online privacy. Using various tactics to cast FUD they
paint a dim picture of the web as a cesspool of amoral, greedy data hounds. It’s true,
of course; in as much as man-kind is a cesspool of amoral, greedy hounds, but it’s
not more true on the web than it is in the brick-and-mortar world. Though
it is, perhaps, easier and cheaper to enact these monitoring techniques in the digital
world than it is in the physical world. Certainly gathered digital data is easier
Should you worry about tracking cookies and beacons? Today, I say not. If you want
something to worry about, then it may be a good option since there are actual, effective steps
you can take to stop them. However, as I said before, doing so may make your web
surfing less convenient and potentially cost you more. And again I say, it’s not worth
worrying about – at least not today.
Don’t get me wrong. There are miscreants lurking about, collecting data about you
as you roam around the web. Someone does know that you recently priced Shop-Vacs,
added a hunting rifle to your wish list, and bought a lace teddy. And as a result,
you may be falsely categorized as a cross dressing adult male. But other than possibly
serving up some ads that are of absolutely no interest to you, your life will not
be impacted; primarily because they have no idea who you are. These tracking services
have no business incentive to identify you as a person. Where they primarily benefit
is in aggregating you along with other people who share similar interests and selling
you (via a unique identifier associated with your browser, not with you) to advertisers
or using information about your interests to customize the pages you see on their
website when you visit. Amazon already
does this, and does it well! The only difference is, with Amazon you have to be
logged in first before they know what to show you. Cross-domain tracking is about
enabling that experience without forcing people to self-identify.
I do think there is some risk. My answer about whether or not you should worry about
being tacked online had a caveat: “Today.” For the time being, I have not seen or
heard of any cases where these tracking services are identifying and/or selling information
about individual people. They are simply aggregating data and identifying
individual browsers. However, that does not preclude the possibility that
in the future they may resort to capturing key strokes and using that to associate
everything they know about your browser with information like your name, address,
phone number – anything you may type into your browser outside of a secure (SSL) session.
When I recently decided to accept a position at Webtrends, I had to consider these
issues for myself at length. What I found, and have continued to find since, is a
commitment to ethical, deliberate tracking of “on domain” activity. Any data they
collect on behalf of customers is kept strictly confidential and is served only to
those customers. They do not mix or associate data collected for different customers
– not even for internal use. Contrast this with a company like Flurry which
claims ownership of and publicly
shares data collected by its customers.
I feel good about Webtrends’
approach to online privacy while providing a valuable service to companies who
have a fiduciary responsibility to improve the value they get from their online presence.
And I really enjoy the convenience of the web, and will
continue to use it, especially since I can’t stand shopping at Walmart.