To Track or Not to Track

Privacy on the internet is an illusion.

Even as I’m writing this blog post, my online activity is being tracked by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and dozens of sprawling ad networks. First- and third-party cookies are recording what I buy, search, and share so that my online experience can be better tailored to fit my needs. Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm is showing me more of what I click on and less of what I ignore. Maybe that’s why my news feed is a constant stream of updates from fan pages I like with no actual humans in sight:

Facebook screenshot taken Wednesday afternoon November 12, 2014

Facebook screenshot taken Wednesday afternoon November 12, 2014

This collection of big data has implications far beyond targeted banner ads. News of the NSA’s PRISM tracking program leaked last summer and sent web denizens running for cover that doesn’t exist. While I’m ambivalent toward Facebook filtering my friends for me or Amazon showing me related products on its homepage, the thought of these companies handing over my personal data to the NSA terrifies me.

Granted, that would only happen if the NSA requests my information. Unless the memes I share with friends or the football-related tweets I post threaten our nation’s security, that request will probably never be made. But the possibility is out there.

In addition to tracking by Big Brother, online security in this age of big data has become a huge concern. With nude photos of celebrities leaking online through cracks in iCloud’s defenses and personal Snapchat photos getting out due to a breach of security with a third-party app, our privacy is being threatened in a way we’ve never seen before.

Each of these examples demonstrates the fundamental ethical challenge we face with online tracking: our lack of choice. I choose to allow first-party cookies in order to have a more enjoyable experience. I don’t want to lose my shopping cart when I navigate away from Amazon or login to Facebook every time I visit the site. I’m even fine with third-party cookies that track my behavior in order to deliver more relevant ads. I consent to being tracked by these companies in order to enjoy all the wonderful free services the internet offers, as explained by this insightful article from The Atlantic:

There’s nothing necessarily sinister about this subterranean data exchange: this is, after all, the advertising ecosystem that supports free online content. All the data lets advertisers tune their ads, and the rest of the information logging lets them measure how well things are actually working.

But what happens if I change my mind and don’t want to be tracked by these third parties anymore? I can send a “Do Not Track” request through my browser, which asks that third-party cookies not be stored with my information. This concept is essentially the web’s answer to the “Do Not Call” list, which is regulated by the FCC and the FTC. In theory, this option sounds like a reasonable middle ground between necessary first-party cookies and intrusive third-party cookies. The only problem with Do Not Track?

It doesn’t always work.

The request for companies not to track you is simply that – a request. It can and most likely will be ignored. There is no standard for how these requests are handled and no agency with oversight of the process. When a telemarketer calls me even though I’m on the Do Not Call registry, I can complain to someone who will (hopefully) do something about it. When a company ignores my Do Not Track request, I’m out of luck.

I don’t mind companies tracking me all over the internet in order to serve me tailored advertisements. That’s not in and of itself a bad thing. I would rather see ads from my favorite shaving supplies website than ones for cooking classes or dance lessons. The problem lies in the lack of transparency on the part of those who track and the lack of choice I have in the process. I want to know what is done with information from my online profile. Who’s using it and for what purpose? Who’s it being given to other than advertisers? When my information changes hands, is the data secure?

The problem with figuring out the rules of online tracking as we go is that mistakes will be made and casualties will occur. Having such massive reservoirs of online data becomes an easy target for hackers. Online and in-store shoppers can have their credit card information exposed. Your Gmail account credentials might be dumped online for all the world to see and exploit. In this brave new world, how much control be we really have?

Or is control, like privacy, just an illusion?


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