news break: they know you’re a dog

There was a fascinating – and troubling – story in the New York Times yesterday about how search engines and other Internet companies gather and use personal information.

The Web companies are, in effect, taking the trail of crumbs people leave behind as they move around the Internet, and then analyzing them to anticipate people’s next steps. So anybody who searches for information on such disparate topics as iron supplements, airlines, hotels and soft drinks may see ads for those products and services later on.

Consumers have not complained to any great extent about data collection online. But privacy experts say that is because the collection is invisible to them. Unlike Facebook’s Beacon program, which stirred controversy last year when it broadcast its members’ purchases to their online friends, most companies do not flash a notice on the screen when they collect data about visitors to their sites.

“When you start to get into the details, it’s scarier than you might suspect,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy rights group. “We’re recording preferences, hopes, worries and fears.”

One impact is that traditional media that have gone online are unable to compete with companies that focus on data-gathering and so are losing out on the advertising revenue stream that used to fund their operations. But what is astonishing to me is the number of “data points” a company might collect – Yahoo collects an average of 811 bits of data about the average visitor each month. (????!!!!) Five corporations collect 336 billion transactions each month. And as they buy up other companies, their data pile grows. This, in spite of discomfort; surveys find 84 – 88% of people feel companies should not use personal information or resell it without opt-in consent. But that’s not what happens.

I found it intriguing (and disturbing) that the government sees this willing sharing of data as an excuse for warrantless wiretapping. In other words, if we let Google do it, we forfeit our expectation of privacy.

(largely cross-posted from the Information Fluency blog)

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