Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Privacy issues

I think privacy is one of the most important issues out there on the internet.  This week's readings/viewings included some really disturbing clips that show how easy it is to find people's identity on the web.  Specifically, I'm thinking about the video showing how easy it is to look up someone's real name, address, telephone number based only on information from a public chat room (it was called "How hard is it to target kids online").  I think this video should have also addressed Facebook, because with a Facebook account the stalker might have been able to find pictures of their victim as well.  That is some really creepy stuff, and I think one good reason why perhaps schools are hesitant to embrace the use of web 2.0 technologies for the classroom.

Many of the recommendations we learned this week about access control to class internet resources stem from dealing with this problem (though hopefully in a less extreme case).  We need to be sure we can control the internet environment for our class, just as we expect to be able to control who enters our school building and who enters our class.  Also, we need to be clear about communicating our rules and expectations for using technology, just like we communicate rules and expectations in the classroom.

I'd like to change gears a little bit, away from the stalking phenomenon, to a more subtle privacy topic.  Aside from the possibility that anonymous stalkers are targeting you individually over the internet, there is the very real possibility that you are being tracked by companies.  Part of the reason the internet has so much awesome free stuff is that we get to access the services from the web in exchange for losing some privacy.  I don't think people know just how much information is available, however.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a series on internet privacy.  It turns out companies have invented lots of ways to track their users, beyond simple cookies.  Here is an excerpt from the article "On Web's Cutting Edge, Anonymity in Name Only" about the tracking technology developed by [x+1], a data tracking firm:

From a single click on a web site, [x+1] correctly identified Carrie Isaac as a young Colorado Springs parent who lives on about $50,000 a year, shops at Wal-Mart and rents kids' videos. The company deduced that Paul Boulifard, a Nashville architect, is childless, likes to travel and buys used cars. And [x+1] determined that Thomas Burney, a Colorado building contractor, is a skier with a college degree and looks like he has good credit.

The company didn't get every detail correct. But its ability to make snap assessments of individuals is accurate enough that Capital One Financial Corp. uses [x+1]'s calculations to instantly decide which credit cards to show first-time visitors to its website.

This is profoundly creepy!  It turns out that [x+1] uses many databases to make these predictions.  Here is the WSJ again (because I think this stuff is really cool):

By contrast, firms like [x+1] tap into vast databases of people's online behavior—mainly gathered surreptitiously by tracking technologies that have become ubiquitous on websites across the Internet. They don't have people's names, but cross-reference that data with records of home ownership, family income, marital status and favorite restaurants, among other things. Then, using statistical analysis, they start to make assumptions about the proclivities of individual Web surfers.

The WSJ did a whole series of articles about this issue, you can find it here: http://online.wsj.com/public/page/what-they-know-digital-privacy.html

There is a moral dimension to this story.  I'm a really big fan of math and pretty happy with my undergraduate education.  However, it saddens me to see math (statistics) being used in this way.  The people being tracked by this technology most likely wouldn't approve if they knew it was being done.

Of course, there are two sides of every story.  Here are some counter-arguments to that position: First, people aren't being identified by name, according to [x+1] (I suspect that this is not always true, however.)  Secondly, this type of tracking technology allows companies to market to specific users who might like their product, which should arguably give consumers a better experience since they would then end up looking at ads for things they might actually want.  So this technology isn't malicious, but rather designed to better sell you widgets or something.  Lastly, advertising sustains the internet!  It's the reason Facebook is free.  And I don't see myself giving up Facebook anytime soon...

I don't mean to quote all these scary blurbs and then leave it at that.  There are some precautionary browser add-ons you can install that might help protect you.  The WSJ recommends Ghostery, which blocks a lot of the tracking technologies featured in the article.  You can find it here: http://www.ghostery.com/download.  Also, if you are on wifi networks and use Firefox, look into HTTPS Everywhere, https://www.eff.org/https-everywhere, which makes encrypted connections with websites the default setting where available.  HTTPS Everywhere won't stop these companies tracking you (Ghostery does that), but it will foil people if they are snooping around on your wireless network.