Why you should care about online activity tracking

This entry was posted by on Friday, 30 September, 2011 at
My friend, Augustine von Freiburg, recently put out a call over on G+ asking to “Convince me that I should care that [insert name of all-powerful social network here] is tracking me.” The conversation continued for a bit noting that the likely only real issue is that now advertisements can be targeted to you.
Since I am one of those people who has recently been sharing a good amount of information under the auspices of “Staying Vigilant” when it comes to knowing what’s going on with your information on social sites, I felt compelled to think more deeply as to what the issues at hand here really are. So I began collating some ideas as the conversation continued on (I’d noted I had thoughts on the matter, but wasn’t able to accurately or intelligently voice them at the time, but would come back to it later… now is obviously later). Over the course of the other comments, some good items were brought forward, items which should be acknowledged, but still left me feeling like the right answer was still eluding me.
There was a point made regarding police states and tracking. A very good point, and one which we shouldn’t ignore especially with the recent Carnegie Mellon application specific to connecting individual information with a picture via facial recognition. The source story from The Atlantic can be found here. Connecting offline lives and information with the online persona and information can indeed be a damaging prospect for many people. The same arguments regarding Google’s “Real Name” policy can be made here as well, since the veil of anonymity is even more readily lifted with technology like this. Visions of 1984’s Big Brother are quite cliché, but still accurate within this context.
But imagine you aren’t a revolutionary or progressive fighting against a totalitarian regime, does it really matter to you? Likely you can brush off police state fears as irrelevant to your own life of privilege as a middle class American; the likelihood is still an issue of the future, not the present. It is simply tough to identify with the fear and feelings of living in a police state where information tracking has actual, tangible consequences if you are living the right life. So how is online activity tracking a relevant concern to the “every day middle-class American”?
There are the obvious employment concerns of potentially exposing behaviours in which employers may deem unsuitable for their employees to be engaging. We have all, of course, seen examples of this in the media over the past few years, and know that employers make it a habit these days to use social sites as research tools when hiring both to weed out the bad as well as bubble up the good; a double-edged sword there to be sure, all depending on who you are and the relative conservatism of the employer. The issue here, of course, isn’t the tracking of your online activities per se, but rather the potential exposure of such activities.
When sites like Facebook begin changing how information is displayed, bringing some information to higher visibility than previous shown, the social code is broken. I’m not saying FB change their security (they didn’t), but rather when they shifted how the site functions all of a sudden users who had once felt safe under the blanket of ‘security through obscurity’, were left cold as their activities were now up in the fore-front, exposed to not just people who went looking for it, but to anyone who has logged in and noticed the ticker. Again, the issue here is the exposure of the information made possible by both direct user actions as well as tracking. The information has been there for a long time, but it was now exposed in a much more visible fashion.
This brings up the idea here that this isn’t even about ‘privacy’, as nothing on the internet is really “private”, but rather about owning my information and being able to mitigate the potential exposure (understanding that removing the risk entirely is not possible, even if you delete all your data and account and logout for good… the internet remembers everything). So, the problems begin when Terms Of Service change to allow companies to cast wider nets, and new settings are implemented in an opt-out rather than opt-in fashion. Had the ticker on Facebook been rolled out as an opt-in feature, I doubt anyone would have complained; it wouldn’t have had a great adoption rate either, but the ‘privacy’ concerns wouldn’t have been founded.
Is there a real, tangible concern with social sites just tracking your information as they please? Not from my perspective. The issues begin when they expose that information at their will and without the individual’s explicit confirmation. Yes, we’ve all agreed to the terms of service in order to play on these sites, and have likely not thought of all the potential consequences of clicking Agree. Without knowing the full text of the Facebook TOS agreement, I’ll set up a small example: say there is a line in there which binds the user in agreement to allow FB to share the user’s data with 3rd party entities. When you clicked ‘agree’, there were likely only one or two companies to which FB was actually providing data, and they were likely advertising or some other benign company. But now, FB has your agreement and now brings in another company, one like “BigBrotherMedical” or some such insurance provider, and now your data can be shared with them potentially impacting your eligibility for medical insurance since you buy your cigarettes and booze on-line, increasing risk factors for health problems, which are now tracked, thanks to a silly little cookie in your browser. I am sure you can build out a slew of your own ‘what-if’ scenarios here on your own….
It is these unforeseen changes to the service, and the default opt-in which is of concern. It removes the control of the individuals information and places that control in the hands of the social site, giving the user a sense of false security by providing some basic ‘privacy controls’ or options. This is one of the reasons why I am vocal about exposing the underlying workings of what Facebook has been doing recently. It behooves every user to be aware of what changes are happening and what consequences those changes could have down the line. I am not warning people to quit FB, logout and never come back, but rather to be aware of what they are agreeing to. A choice is not a choice if one is not informed properly… which is why I tag many of my posts highlighting these ‘issues’ as “Stay Vigilant”; simply said, every user needs to make their own choice about what they are comfortable sharing on a site, as well as making the choice as to how comfortable they are with having their activity tracked beyond the spectre of just targeted advertising purposes.
But all that fear is indeed just a healthy dose of paranoia and speculation. So let us talk about an even more dangerous issue surrounding the use of the information being tracked today. An issue which has actually been building for a few years now and one which has already had consequences. I’ve been referring to it as “social homogenization” in different contexts (surrounding how we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded individuals on social sites and tend to have less interactions with people of dissenting opinions with whom we are directly connected). This “social homogenization”, however, has been going on behind the scenes as well.
Google, Facebook, and many other of the smaller companies have been doing this for years now, under the guise of ‘personalization’; where content is filtered for you by algorithms and internet robots watching your every click. A great TED Talk (available on YouTube here go watch it now, I’ll wait….) was recently shared by another acquaintance on G+ regarding this exact behaviour and presented in such a way that it really shows the dangers inherent with personalization: filter bubbles.  These filter bubbles, controlled by algorithms with no ethical balance, begin working to insulate us from information it thinks we don’t want, based directly on our online activity tracking. The results of which begin insulating us by providing only information the algorithms think we do want. This is likely the most dangerous aspect in the present, as it has immediate and direct impacts on the information available to us right now.
In the TED talk linked above, you will see how a real world example used this personalization based on activity tracking to result in no mention of the Egyptian revolution on the first page of a Google query on “Egypt”, while it flooded the first page result set for another user. The differences in the two users being (from what I can glean from the video) location mainly. Even then, the speaker regale the audience at the beginning with the anecdotal evidence he personally encountered on Facebook; where he was seeing far less of his conservative friends’ posts, and much more of his liberal/progressive friends’ posts based on the algorithms which indicated he was clicking on the links shared by his liberal friends far more than those shared by his conservative friends.
At a base level, this scares me more than anything else about how tracking my online activities can be used in an ostensibly benign fashion couched as ‘personalization’, but have much more insidious effects in keeping relevant and important information from being surfaced in my news feeds of Google query results. As the speaker noted, these algorithms have no built-in ethics as the gatekeepers of knowledge, and because of that, there is no real editorial review and passing on of information because it NEEDS to be seen, only because it thinks I want to see it. A very, very dangerous behaviour if you ask me, and truly the reason why I will continue providing warnings and information about how social sites are tracking and using your personal data.

2 Responses to “Why you should care about online activity tracking”

  1. Matt

    In the medical field, there is endless discussion about privacy, due to the sensitive nature of the information we gather. There is a (somewhat glib) saying that what you do in the bathroom isn’t a secret, but it is private.

  2. Amen. HIPAA laws and the like are a great tool to help ensure privacy, but it obviously isn’t the panacea in which we should rest all our confidence. Ethics must play a part of our collective experiences and activities online, just like it guides you in the medical field. When we allow algorithms to think for us, we release any sense of ethics guiding us.

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