The tracking of online user behaviour is a big deal. And I think it is one of these things that people are aware of – at least to some degree. But how much – and who is tracking your web browsing? Toolness.org wrote a tool, that enables you see just how much tracking is happening and by who. The image is a screen shot of visiting just five web sites – each dot is a separate site, i.e., 37 site in total, even though I only loaded five sites: mozilla.com, wordpress.com, cnn.com, arstechnica.com and amazon.com.
The red dots are the tracker sites (confirmed by privacychoice.org). The two separate dots are mozilla.com (grey) sending information to webtrendsline.com (red), while wordpress.com sends information to wp.com, youtube.com, gravatar.com and quantserve.com (red) (top right five dots)
The big one, which surprised me, created by visiting arstechnica.com, amazon.com and cnn.com – only three sites – and another 27 companies know about my web browsing! Most of whom I have never heard about. For example, loading an arstechnica.com webpage will send your browsing information to Twitter, Facebook, scorecardresearch, outbrain.com, 2mdm.net, addtoany.com, reddit.com, doubleclick.net, and Google.
And sites like scorecardresearch, facebook and doubleclick (owned by Google) collects from other sites. Basically, they are likely to know more about you than any government organisation and maybe even your friends.
We (as in those of us involved with software development in its broadest sense) are not often, if ever, asked about the moral implications of ‘our’ software. Sure, most have heard of the privacy discussion about the information stored within browsers, the cloud or with other organisations. But morality rarely figures as part of the discussion.
It was about ten years ago, that I first encountered the talk of (mobile) software’s ability to track the user’s location and ‘contextualise’ the behaviour – e.g., display ads for the movie running at the cinema, that you happen to walk past. Foursquare, Google Latitude, and Facebook Places are three such services available today – albeit for other purposes, but stay tuned for that movie ad.
However, the privacy discussion is not just about privacy settings (easy or not). Damon Horowitz certainly asked some interesting questions about morality and technology in his recent TED presentation titled ‘moral operating system‘. It is akin to the discussions found in science about morality, e.g., hydrogen bomb; and the what if Weismann’s barrier is permeable – should we (still) apply gene therapy, if we also risk a heritable change to our DNA?
Developing software hasn’t so far been associated with these types of moral questions, but it seems that our technology has reached a critical mass where we might need to get used to discussing these. More isn’t just more . . .
In a recent interview with Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg said the following: “When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was ‘why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website? And then in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”
In context of recent Facebook changes (e.g., default is now to make information visible to everyone), it seems that ‘more’ actually means ‘everyone’. Just because some people like to blog, it does not automatically mean that everyone want to let everyone else see what they post online. Strange argument from Mr Zuckerberg…
It doesn’t seem like we have moved very far on the topic of online privacy.
In 1999, Scott McNealy (chairman and co-founder of Sun Microsystems, then CEO) referred to online privacy as a “red herring” and told everyone to “get over it“. The comment came only hours after at Intel had agreed to retract a new feature in their Pentium III chip (remember that one?) , which would have made Big Brother‘s (not the reality TV show) monitoring capabilities pale into insignificance.
No one appears to be tackling the core issues:
- Identity that a user can easily management and use anywhere. Online, we all suffer from a serious case multiple personality disorder.
- Context: Relationship exists within a context, e.g., work, family, and friends (and different groups of friends). Online we are all ‘friends’ (whatever that means) with no real ability to influence who reads what.
- Control: Delete or expire information about yourself – for the first time in (known) history, we all have a very detailed account of everything we did – information posted by colleagues, family and friends (whatever that means) or even strangers including (somewhat) factual accounts of events, pictures or movies online about us. The process of forgetting seems to be under attack… (although these guys are doing something about it 🙂 ), but apart from that, is it mentally healthy to ‘remember’ everything you did? My guess is probably not…
- Scope: Information about you were limited in its ability to travel – now it can travel the world instantly at no cost, I.e., the local village rumour mill on super steroids. In fact, a lot of the information used by such as banks to identify people over the phone is found online these days (date of birth, address, full name, phone numbers etc.).
Will a single, (semi)-unified online identify emerge eventually ?