Disclosure: I worked on this event with the sponsors.
At the National Press Club today (and broadcast on C-SPAN2), was the event “Yes, They Really Know It’s You: The Digital Collection of Personal Information From Consumers and Citizens,” sponsored by the ACLU, Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, US PIRG and World Privacy Forum.
Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz was the featured speaker, and he discussed the rise of paparazzi-like types collecting data about online users, and urged a “Do Not Track” system:
A host of invisible cyberazzi – cookies and other data catchers – follow us as we browse, reporting our every stop and action to marketing firms that, in turn, collect an astonishingly complete profile of our online behavior. Whenever we click, so do they.
One day you might print out a CDC fact sheet on alcoholism to help your son with a project for health class. Click. Or you order a box of your mother’s favorite candy to take her when you go visit. Click. Or you buy the book “The Winner’s Guide to Casino Gambling” as a raffle prize for your church’s Las Vegas night. Click.
You know you are a dutiful parent, but a potential employer could see a boozy job applicant. You know you are a thoughtful daughter, but a health insurer could see a destined diabetic. You know you are a generous member of the community, but a loan officer could see a risky gambler. […]
[W]e proposed a “Do Not Track” mechanism that will allow consumers to decide whether to share information about their browsing behavior. We envision a system consumers can find and use easily and one that all companies employing cyberazzi must respect.
Also speaking at the event was Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford graduate student who led a study concerning online tracking of consumers. The study finds that “Many top websites share their visitors’ names, usernames or other personal information with their partners without telling users and, in some cases, without knowing they’re doing it,” IDG News reports. The Los Angeles Times reports:
Mayer and other privacy advocates said the leakage is a risk because one identifiable piece of information associated with a Web browser’s unique sequence of numbers could allow all that browser’s activity to be connected to a particular person.
For example, when a user logs on to the Home Depot website and then looks at a local ad, the person’s first name and email address is sent to 13 companies, Mayer said.
“And that email and first name get associated not just with what you’re doing right now, but get associated with what you’ve done in the past and what Web-browsing activity you might have in the future,” Mayer said.
There was also a panel of advocates and Christian Fjeld, Senior Counsel at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. They discussed the privacy harms that can come from such data gathering, tracking and publication, as well as the state of legislation in Congress concerning online privacy, targeted behavioral advertising and more.
You can view video of the event at: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/videoLibrary/event.php?id=197875. You can read Leibowitz’s prepared remarks here (FTC pdf) or here (archive pdf). Here is Mayer’s research.