The Wall Street Journal just finished running a fascinating and downright scary investigative series revealing how our privacy is compromised when we are surfing the Internet or using a cell phone, and how big players such as Microsoft have purposely failed to provide tools to protect our data in order to cash in on the on-line advertising bonanza.
The What They Know series began July 30 with The Web’s Gold Mine: Your Secrets, which Doc Searles (of Cluetrain Manifesto, et al) has pronounced as the tipping point in on-line advertising. That is, when people realize how much they are being tracked they will opt-out of providing data to surreptitious data miners who, in turn, will move on to greener (as in money) pastures on the Internet.
As part of this investigative series, the WSJ ran a series of tests including one that calculated the number of surreptitious tracking files that were installed when visiting the top 50 most visited sites on the web. The results are astonishing: "The 50 sites installed a total of 3,180 tracking files on a test computer used to conduct the study. Only one site, Wikipedia.org, installed none. Twelve sites, including Dictionary.com, Comcast Corp.'s Comcast.net and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN.com, installed more than 100 tracking tools apiece in the course of the Journal's test." Yes, Virginia, free stuff on the Internet carries a steep price.
This information is collected and sold on data auction sites, such as BlueKai, and used to provide on-line companies with more information about you as you visit their websites. For example, Capital One Financial Corp uses data it purchases to instantly decide what credit card offers when you visit their website. Websites are gaining the ability to decide whether or not you'd be a good customer, before you tell them a single thing about yourself.
This isn't all about money, but privacy and personal security too. In the August 3 installment in the series, the WSJ highlights how cellphone tracking can be used in domestic abuse cases to help the perpetrator locate their victim in a shelter. If you are a family lawyer, this is something you may want to advise ALL of your clients!
The WSJ also provides valuable links to the on-line advertisers, including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Lotame, and BlueKai, to allow consumers to change their preferences (i.e. voluntarily provide accurate data about yourself) or opt-out completely.
If you want to learn more about the privacy policies of the sites you visit--especially when using your firm's computers, try TrackerScan (by PrivacyChoice.org) via the WSJ site. To help stop this intrusion of privacy, visit the links above, and then get the TACO (Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out) add-in for Firefox to prevent future privacy intrusions.
Besides the individual privacy aspects revealed in this WSJ series, it should give law firms pause to review and reflect upon their firm technology and Internet use policies with an eye to reduce the amount of information gleaned from employees while surfing for work and for pleasure.