These days, whenever you look at a web page you can be accidentally sharing a lot of personal data. As has been well reported in the media, web pages frequently store little files on your computer – cookies – which then report back when you visit the webpage next time around. You can set your browser to delete cookies but the problem doesn’t end there. The internet cannot work without your computer sharing its IP address with the server of the web page – it has to know where to send the page requested. These IP addresses can be and are stored by servers and data about what IP requests what is therefore stored. Over the last few years, public concern about the implications for this have been growing.
We tend to see the problem as an individual matter. We tell ourselves that so long as we are careful not to reveal too much about ourselves, we won’t get caught out revealing too much. If only it were that simple. Your browser gives out lots of information about the machine you are using and, over time, taken together, this information is capable by clever of algorithms of generating a fingerprint about your web browsing. The commercial industry which profits from this information gathering is called data mining. Data miners collect both personal information and information about the collective behaviour about certain demographic groups. They buy and sell it. We’ve all been mined.
In the USA a campaign has begun which aims to frustrate the worst excesses of the data mining industry. It’s called Do Not Track. This is what the campaign says about itself:
Do Not Track is a technology and policy proposal that enables users to opt out of tracking by websites they do not visit, including analytics services, advertising networks, and social platforms. At present few of these third parties offer a reliable tracking opt out, and tools for blocking them are neither user-friendly nor comprehensive. Much like the popular Do Not Call registry, Do Not Track provides users with a single, simple, persistent choice to opt out of third-party web tracking.
You can enable the Do Not Track technology for three browsers: Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer. There’s lot more information at Do Not Track‘s website.
For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been using Ghostery. It’s a browser add on. After the first install it can seem irritaing because it pastes a purple box telling you about the tracking features on every page you visit and this block stays in place for 15 seconds. I’ve changed the settings to move the position of the block on the screen and have it disappear after 2 seconds. You don’t need to have the on screen info at all. I’ve kept it for the time being because it is a useful reminder of what each web page is trying to gather. Crucially, Ghostery allows you to block whatever data mining in-page code you like – you can switch it off for web pages you want to. It also deletes so-called Flash cookies – software files placed on your computer by online videos, which are put in a different place to the commonly discussed cookies.
Ghostery breaks down the data mining scripts into these categories: advertising, analytics, privacy, trackers and widgets. If you block them all, your experience online will be very different. I don’t block adverts because I like to click on them when I like a certain blog, to reward the blogger (this is not a hint, this is me noting commonly enjoyed behaviour); I open the link in a different tab and rarely even look at it. I also don’t block analytics, partly because that might seem hypocritical (this blog uses analytics). I block under the titles of privacy and trackers. I leave widgets alone – this includes stuff live social networking ‘like’ and ‘share’ buttons, as well as comment forms. Personally, I don’t want to return to Web 1.0.
Ghostery tells me that every Facebook
page, sorry “wall” contains two privacy and tracking scripts: from DoubleClick and Media Innovation Group. Of course, this is hardly news – the company was hardly like to be able to flog itself for such an overpriced share deal if it didn’t have any way of following its users. DoubleClick is a Google product, which is geared to assist social media networks serve up the most suitable adverts to their users. The Media Innovation Group sells software which analyses the success or failure of advertising campaigns. Google can do that as well, of course, but it is probably commercially sensible to use different companies to provide the raft of data mining employed by a social network. Ghostery has been blocking these two scripts for me, with the result that Facebook has started to flail around and throw the most inappropriate adverts at me. Either that or it just now thinks that I’ve undergone a personality change and now like guns, the Royal Jubilee and racing cars!
Some information may surprise you. Of the various sites I regularly visit, the Guardian ‘newspaper’ seems to employ the highest number of tracking features.
Give it a go. I highly recommend Ghostery. You’ll be doing yourself a favour by preventing individual data mining. You’ll also be doing us all a favour by preventing collective data mining. To those that say that collective trend tracking is a good thing because it means that we get sold stuff we like, there is one simple response: capitalism made plenty profits before this technology came along and we all bought stuff we liked. Being put in a category and manipulated by marketing is not a good thing. Being free of snoopers is.