On NPR’s “Fresh Air” radio program, there’s a discussion about marketers gathering data about users’ online browsing habits and how that data can be used to create targeted behavioral advertising:
One of the fastest-growing online businesses is the business of spying on Internet users by using sophisticated software to track movements through the Web, so that the information can be sold to advertisers.
Julia Angwin recently led a team of reporters from The Wall Street Journal in analyzing the tracking software. They discovered that nearly all of the most commonly visited websites gather information in real time about the behavior of online users. […]
In a recent conversation with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, Angwin explains how consumer surveillance works, how users can disable the tracking software — and how advertisers are continually evolving to keep up with the data they receive. She notes that many Internet users are unaware that their information is being tracked and then traded. […]
[Angwin] On privacy concerns
“It’s totally fair to say the tracking companies don’t know your name, but my feeling is if they know everything else about you, does it matter that they don’t know your name? Because it feels intrusive to have somebody know so much about you, particularly when we do so much online. When I look at my record of my browsing history or I look at what pages I look at, it really seems to be a record of my thoughts. Every time I have a thought, I take an action online and Google it. So [online tracking] does build up these incredibly rich dossiers.
One question is: Is knowing your name the right definition of anonymity? Right now, that is considered anonymous. If they don’t know your name, they’re not covered by laws that regulate personally identifiable information. And that’s what the Federal Trade Commission is considering — that the definition of personal information should be expanded beyond name and Social Security number. Another thing that [online tracking] raises is sensitive information. So if you’re looking at gay websites, then you’re labeled as gay in some database somewhere and then you’re followed around and sold on some exchange as gay, and you just may not want that to happen. So I feel like there are some categories that we as a society may not want collected: our political affiliation, our diseases, our income levels and many other things.”