Saul Hansell has an interesting post over at the New York Times’ Bits Blog.
Before heading to the beach this summer, I decided to buy a plastic watch, so I ordered one from Swatch.com. What I didn’t know was that Swatch sent information about my purchase to a company called Acerno, which runs an advertising network that reaches 80 of the top 100 Web sites. Since then, some of the ads I have seen on those sites could well have been placed by a company that specifically wanted to reach watch buyers. (There’s no way to tell if that did happen.)
Acerno, which has operated for three years with almost no publicity, says it now has files on 140 million people in the United States, nearly all the online shoppers. These are gathered from 375 online stores, including Spiegel, eHarmony, Video Professor, Michelin and American Girl, where it tracks not only what Internet users buy but also what products they read about. It uses this information to place ads on more than 400 sites on behalf of marketers.
Hansell notes the big problem with the US privacy rules on data collection, that it is “based on what is called ‘notice and choice.’ In other words, it’s fine to gather and use information so long as you tell people what you are doing so and give the option to make you stop.” But, Web site users rarely read privacy policies that give “notice” to them.
Hansell asks, “Here is the bluntest way to put the question: Is a notice really a notice if the vast majority of people who are supposed to be notified don’t notice the notice?” For many people, I think the answer is, “No.”