NPF: PRIVATE PARTS

Generally I'm not the paranoid type, and I wouldn't say I devote much mental energy to the topic of "online privacy." I take it as given that every search engine, social networking site, and free email service is collecting staggering amounts of data about me and my online habits. I also accept the fact that every email I've ever sent is probably stored in some gargantuan NSA database, every text message I've ever sent can be subpoenaed from my service provider, and any cell phone call I make is potentially being monitored. None of that is paranoia – it's just reality. These new ways in which we communicate offer very little privacy. Read up on ECHELON, 641A, Titan, the Interception Modernization Program, and all the other very real ways in which whatever expectations of privacy you might have are being compromised.

One thing we can stop, at least to some extent, is having information about our online habits packaged, sold, and put to various commercial uses. To that end Google, the 900-pound gorilla of online information harvesting, is altering its privacy policies on March 1. You can limit the amount of information you surrender and the extent to which it is used for commercial purposes by opting out. Quoth the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

On March 1st, Google will implement its new, unified privacy policy, which will affect data Google has collected on you prior to March 1st as well as data it collects on you in the future. Until now, your Google Web History (your Google searches and sites visited) was cordoned off from Google's other products. This protection was especially important because search data can reveal particularly sensitive information about you, including facts about your location, interests, age, sexual orientation, religion, health concerns, and more. If you want to keep Google from combining your Web History with the data they have gathered about you in their other products, such as YouTube or Google Plus, you may want to remove all items from your Web History and stop your Web History from being recorded in the future.

To opt out, follow these simple instructions: sign in, go to google.com/history, and choose "Remove All Web History". This also revokes your consent to have your search history recorded going forward.

Let's not kid ourselves, we'll probably learn a few years from now that they're recording all of our search habits anyway (Shocking scandal! Online giant becomes Big Brother and sells out users!) but I don't see any reason to give them the satisfaction of consenting to it.

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17 Responses to “NPF: PRIVATE PARTS”

  1. Middle Seaman Says:

    If you want to open the world up for yourself beware of the fact that you made yourself open to the world. Any attempt to peep at the world from behind a high wall will either close the world or open everything up.

    Controlled trading with the observed world's characteristics may be attempted using legal means, but in our world where the rich decide everything such legal approach will be easily blocked.

  2. Fiddlin' Bill Says:

    Thanks Ed. Your clear explanation was very helpful!

  3. Southern Beale Says:

    You don't even have to open yourself to the world. All you have to do is shop at Target.

    Yeah if you're going to troll around the internet I suppose the idea of privacy is antiquated but the amount of information corporations are harvesting about us is pretty scary.

  4. anotherbozo Says:

    Just to be clear: I followed instructions and Google told me my web history is "paused." but also allowed that my search history "is currently empty."

    Anybody know if this is the fix Ed is talking about? Or did I do it wrong?

    I reflect that yesterday's blog was better than a standup routine, but no standup comic would also show me how to fight privacy invasion.

  5. Number Three Says:

    I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, one has very little privacy on the Internet, and the medium is going to increasingly challenge inherited notions of what 'privacy' actually means.

    On the other hand, it's not like Google or other companies make money selling information about YOU specifically. They make money bundling consumers and email addresses, essentially, by whatever the marketer wants. So the marketer of running apparel says, "We want a list of 35-44 yo WMs who have searched for information related to running in the past 6 months." If you fit that demographic, then they sell your name and email address. And a million more at the same time.

    I'm not privy to how this works in buisness, but it seems to me that very few marketers are going to want to pay for more information than they absolutely need to target their ads. And if they are just using emails, then they can accept a high error rate, so how fine-tuned they need the information is an open question. So in practical terms, I'm not sure what the actual effects of the violation of privacy would be.

    Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I still think that the anonymity of the crowd provides a fair amount of privacy.

  6. Scott Says:

    One thing that is lost in this discussion is that this is one of the Google makes money. Sure, they make some money through click-through advertising at the top of the search results (the blue ones) but I would imagine the bulk of their revenue comes from doing this kind of market research and selling it to the highest bidder.

    Do you use gmail? Google voice? Google maps? I doubt any of that would be as useful or as free if Google wasn't doing this. Do I like what Google is doing? Not really. But I have spam filters on my email addresses and if they are going to advertise products that I would like, I don't really see the harm.

  7. doug Says:

    Number three. Please read the Target article. No one is anonymous.

    EG. Google a bad disease a few times and then try to get health insurance.
    Google bomb making and then something about Islam. Go try to get a job with foreign service.
    Targeted ads are the 'sweetner' for the deal to many people who are induced to give up most of their online privacy so they can 'shop' effectively. We deserve what we get.

  8. acer Says:

    Lifehacker has had some solid articles on this subject. This one went up on Wednesday.

    http://lifehacker.com/5887140/everyones-trying-to-track-what-you-do-on-the-web-heres-how-to-stop-them

  9. terraformer Says:

    I don't have a google account. Can't they still monitor me? Isn't it relatively easy to use (for example) GPS coordinates, tie it to my email address, tie that to my real name (somehow), and do it anyway, whether or not I have a google account?

  10. Number Three Says:

    @doug

    So Target sends mailers to folks when its statistical models indicate that they are nearing a point of making major purchases. It's not like they send out one of these a day. How many? I'm sure 10's of 1000's.

    It would be difficult for me to say how many mailers, adverts, solicitations for contributions I get a week, in the old-fashioned mail. But none of these come from a 'person'–no one ever writes my name and address on the envelope by hand.

    This is an automated process. The computer doesn't know who you are or care about what it's sending out. To the computer, and the label printer it's attached to, you are just a probability over the "print" threshold.

    This isn't like having "personal information" viewed by another person, who is actually going to attach your name and face to the information. (Although in the Target case, it was embarrassing for the girl. But that wasn't Target's fault, really.) It's not like having to piss in a cup in front of someone watching you to make sure you don't cheat.

  11. grendelkhan Says:

    Number Three: They make money bundling consumers and email addresses, essentially, by whatever the marketer wants. So the marketer of running apparel says, "We want a list of 35-44 yo WMs who have searched for information related to running in the past 6 months." If you fit that demographic, then they sell your name and email address. And a million more at the same time.

    It's not even that. Advertisers only pay for ads that people click on; what you see is pretty much what happens. Google tries to figure out how to show you ads that you'll click on. All the advertiser knows is that you clicked on an ad. (And probably what context the ad was in when you did.) If you don't click on any ads, no information is being sent. At least, not through the ads program.

    You can speculate on more nefarious things; for instance, Google clearly could send a list of all of the email addresses and likely names of people who've searched for 'exploding trouser Koran' or whatever to the Feds, but since they're pretty open about when they provide user data to the Feds, I don't think they do that sort of thing.

    terraformer: I don't have a google account. Can't they still monitor me? Isn't it relatively easy to use (for example) GPS coordinates, tie it to my email address, tie that to my real name (somehow), and do it anyway, whether or not I have a google account?

    Location tracking is supported by some browsers; generally, they'll ask your permission to share your location. (IP-to-location tracking goes down to the level of your local ISP, but no further.) More likely you'll have a tracking cookie set, and a batch of actions will be correlated somehow, but that's kind of it. Depending on how often you clear your cache, that correlated set might be split up or in one big blob.

  12. mtraven Says:

    You want to install Ghostery in your browser to disable the huge numbers of cross-browser trackers that almost every web page has these days (including seven on this very site…you don't think all those Facebook Like buttons are just sitting there, did you?)

  13. Ben Says:

    Number Three

    Target has personal data and individual predictive trends attached to a name and address. The only reason a living person doesn't look at the individualized data and mailings is because they don't need to. But they could if they wanted to.

    Look at the different scenarios doug outlined. All of those include entities that would love to be able to predict behavior, data and predictive trends that are easily acquirable, and the motive to look at specific individuals. There's nothing different between them and Target, except that they want to look at individualized data. And they can. And they do.

  14. The Pale Scot Says:

    I don't have a google account, I clear my cache and use a cookie management add-on to remove all cookies other than the few sites (like this one and BJ for ex.) that I don't mind everyday, use multple browsers, like setting one up just for your blogspot/google account only. Learn to use Tor. Right click on a flash video to access your settings AT the Adobe website, that's a big weakness, some ad/marketers are putting cookies there that will "respawn" their cookies back onto your system if are deleting them. Give everyone disinformation whenever you can. F

  15. Nate Says:

    Thanks, Ed. Highly useful. Still a little unsure why you are not on TBoggs' blogroll anymore, but I will still be a regular visitor!