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.


  1. Funny how you are speaking about privacy on the internet. In my School Law class we were discussing how we should be googleing ourselves everyday to see what comes up. If you have the same name as someone who comes up in the search and you do not want to be associated with them, apparently you can call or contact google to stop searches. This is just something we discussed yesterday. A little off topic, I know.

    Also, speaking of searching. Kids are awesome at using the internet. Some schools are even asking their students to try to hack into the privacy settings, which apparently promotes critical thinking.

  2. Hi Tom,

    Yes, the privacy issue is scary on many levels. Funny you mention FB...as just yesterday, my 12yr old sister posted her cell phone # on her page (set up for friends-of-friends to see). I had a fit and when through all of the things that "I" (a predator) could find out about her in seconds.

    I am always hesitant to use my real information on websites and such because of the tracking and profiling that goes on. I would venture a guess that most of it is harmless...but there are malicious people everywhere.

    It can be overwhelming if you think too hard about it. I guess that we just have to mind our P's and Q's...and live. This is the only world that we have.

  3. Hi Tom,

    It's all a bit daunting. By nature, I'm a pretty private person. My husband would go so far as to say I'm paranoid. After a horrible experience with identity theft, I'm even more cautious. A few years ago, though, I decided to embrace technology as much as I could while trying to find ways to do so while limiting exposure. No easy trick!

    And Lydia, I agree with you. We have to mind our P's and Q's. Moreover, we must teach our students to do the same!

  4. I am amazed at the information people put on sites like facebook for all to see. I am guarded about my privacy settings but on top of that I use common sense and don't post anything I wouldn't want people knowing about. That being said, I have accepted the idea that companies are going to be tracking my search history for targeted advertising. To me I figure that is the price I pay for using services for free.

    This is important for us as teachers to keep in mind when we ask our students to join these free websites that ask for their information in order to join. It is our job to check these sites to find out what kind of privacy policies the sites have.