Tuesday, February 11, 2014

I have a stalker? How your web browser tracks you

Maybe you are like me and are constantly typing in your username incorrectly for websites. The other day I was logging into a website on my laptop and I was frustrated at the 7 wrong options for my user name that appeared as I began typing (in my defense it is an 8 digit alpha numeric username). I deleted my cookies and decided to start again. A couple of minutes later some mates turned up and we hit the slopes for a day of skiing. There was plenty of jumps and falls. We also made time to check our university grades online using my smartphone (serious moment of truth). Nobody failed, so we continued skiing.

Do not track has gained a lot of support.
Significance of the story? When I returned home I opened up Google Chrome to log into the University learning management system (LMS) and there was my username along with two of my mates’ usernames. I asked myself how did this happen?

I did some research and realized that there is currently a huge “Do Not Track” movement[1] with California introducing new laws effective January 1, 2014.[2] This is important because Google Chrome has a synchronization feature that is enabled if you sign into Chrome, Chrome OS or an Android device (with Chrome pre-installed) with your Google Account. Are you thinking about your phone and what account you used to set it up?

Privacy: So what do they know about me?

According to the Google Privacy Policy (which I’m sure we have all diligently studied previously) updated December 20, 2013[3] they collect information in two ways:

1. Information you give them when you create your account.
2. Information they collect from your use and interact with their services, including;
  • Device information (type of device, operating system, network and link phone number to account)
  • Log information (search queries, telephony log and cookies)
  • Location information (location when GPS is enabled)
  • Unique application numbers (identifies apps installed, uninstalled and updated)
  • Local storage (data caches on your phone)
  • Cookies and anonymous identifiers (sent to you to track your interaction with services such as, advertising.
Now ask yourself if this is an invasion of privacy? Is it harmless? I often ask myself these questions when I watch Australian comedians Hamish and Andy’s Ghosting Challenge – not exactly the ‘tracking’ we are talking but if you are in need of some light entertainment right now have a look!

Tracking: Why you might support it        

  • Data collected enables more targeted advertising (unique visitors and return visitors are more easily identified across multiple devices) e.g. Amazon promoting product you may also be interested in[4]
  • Tracking your behavior helps companies understand your interaction and improve their sites to suit you  
  • Many online services are offered free because of the ability to target advertisement.
  • Has shown consumer safety benefits, used successfully for product recalls[5]

Tracking: Why you might not support it
  • Data is being used for activities such as, predicating your likelihood of entering or exiting a relationship[6]
  • The possibility of co-mingling data from multiple sites to create profiles of ourselves with more data than we are willing to share on any one website[7]
  • Concerns about hacking and stealing of personal information from big companies e.g. Yahoo[8], LinkedIn[9], Facebook[10] and Twitter[10]
  • Companies may be making assumption that are inaccurate and hurting consumers[11]

    Tracking: Why you might not care about it

  • The privacy policies take too long to read[12]
  • You had no idea what was going on (don’t worry you are not alone)[13]     

    Privacy: Here’s what you should do as a  minimum

     Many will argue for and against web browser tracking and the effect it is having on our privacy. The internet is constantly changing our perception of privacy.  Now if you are worried about your privacy and web browser tracking start by asking yourself the following questions and work from there:
    Online privacy is your responsibility.
  •  What information would I like the world to have about me?
  • Do I mind being tracking for marketing purposes?
  • Am I now freaking out about web browser tracking but regularly share personal details, health conditions or my financial situation on a social networking site/blog?[14]

     (I have used Google Chrome as an example because it is my preferred browser. Do you know what your preferred browser tracks?)

     Finally, everyone should be managing their own online privacy based on what they feel comfortable sharing. This post was not intended to scare anyone, personally I don’t mind web browser tracking and targeted advertisements. I am however very careful about what I share on my social media accounts and how many accounts I have (that is another whole blog post right there). So be aware of what you are sharing and get back to enjoying the internet!

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