Are you being tracked online? The answer is yes. There are financial incentives for everyone from malicious hackers, to scheming governments, to an industry that has found a way to monetize your digital habits.
Behavioral marketing—delivering ads to consumers based on their activity online—is an estimated $80 billion industry. The goal is to sell: cars, gizmos, vacation deals, cheap airfare, food and wine subscriptions—the list goes on forever.
Online targeted marketing is reshaping the electronic landscape. At the global level it is affecting content and is becoming a mirror of the consumer-based society that we live in and unconsciously create.
Last year, privacy advocates filed a complaint with federal regulators against tracking and profiling practices used by Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other Internet companies. It was a step in the right direction. Internet companies should be pushed to be more transparent about the data they’re collecting and what they do with it.
The Federal Trade Commission is stepping in, debating the idea of a Do Not Track system where users would be able to simply click a button in their Web browser to turn off tracking. The idea is a mirror of the national Do Not Call list, but in that case the implementation was easier to pull off.
[Related article: FTC “Do Not Track” Proposal: Q&A With A Privacy Advocate]
The proposed solution should address tracking on three levels: Consumers should have tools to protect themselves. Online portals should transparently present methods used for tracking. And marketing companies should be open about collected data and its usage.
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox now allows consumers to install do-not-track extensions that prevent advertising companies from following their online history. And Mozilla recently offered do-not-track capabilities for mobile browsers.
We can’t only focus on the consumer and protection of his PC, since tracking can happen on social portals, executed independent of our hypothetical consumer’s computer.
It took years for security awareness to take hold in the consumer mind. It has penetrated every aspect of our interaction with personal computers, networks and communications. Makes me wonder when software engineers are going to catch up and shift their focus to privacy-oriented designs. The clock is ticking.
A version of this article originally appeared on Identity Theft 911 on April 14, 2011.
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