Monday, December 20, 2010

More on online privacy and Internet tracking

Yesterday I wrote about the growing threat to our online privacy. A reader e-mailed me links to a number of articles on CNN that address the same issue. I thought they were worth mentioning to those who'd found the earlier article interesting.

Amitai Etzioni asks 'Who is really stealing your privacy?' He makes the point that corporations are far more interested in what you're doing online than Government entities - in fact, the Government often buys the information it wants from those companies!

Two kinds of corporations keep track of what you buy, read, visit, drink; whom you call, e-mail, and date; and lots more. Some merely track your activity on their site as part of their regular business, to help them sell you stuff. This is true from Amazon to Zappos. Other corporations make shadowing you -- and keeping very detailed dossiers on you -- their main line of business. They sell this information to all comers. Just one such company, Choicepoint, has records on more than 220 million people.

More at the link, and very worthwhile reading it is too.

CNN Money goes into more detail about the companies who mine for your data, taking a closer look at several of them. One of them, Rapleaf, was recently in the news for linking your online activities, e-mail accounts, etc. to your Facebook identity and selling the combination to marketers. Unfortunately, most of us miss the reality behind this brouhaha.

Rapleaf's Facebook ID misstep highlights a much larger issue: Even if one data aggregator doesn't share personally identifying information, customers of many data collectors can very easily link up different sources of information to discover things you thought couldn't be traced back to you.

"People don't really appreciate how much can be known about you online," Jennex said. "It's not just a single company doing this, it's everybody."

Using only a name, an e-mail address and information provided by data aggregators including Rapleaf, one privacy researcher -- who asked not to be identified because of his business dealings with several companies in the field -- ran a test combining all of the data from multiple sources. In 86% of his trials, the resulting profile linked the subject's name to his or her full, nine-digit social security number.

The security concerns are far-reaching.

"Here's the truth of the matter when it comes to data mining today: The data they collect will be used in ways they never imagined or intended," said Michael Fertik, CEO of privacy software maker ReputationDefender. "You can mash up huge data sets that were never meant to be mashed together, that are very specific."

Again, more at the link - bold print is my emphasis. Troubling and thought-provoking reading. The company cited in the last paragraph above, ReputationDefender, did a study of one CNN announcer for the program, and uncovered a troubling amount of information. It's also worth reading.

Finally, there's a move afoot to protect online privacy . . . but it's meeting fierce opposition, and may even derail some Internet services and facilities that we take for granted. Again, it's companies that are the source of most of the opposition, not the Big Brother nanny-state government most of us fear more.

All the articles linked above make very interesting reading. Thanks, Dave C., for forwarding the links.


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