September 1, 2013

Commentary: Giving away our privacy

Don't blame the NSA. Without even realizing it, we've let our online privacy slip away gradually.

By DAVEED GARTENSTEIN-ROSS and KELSEY D. ATHERTON

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As people increasingly lived their lives online, they divulged more and more intimate details about themselves, sometimes without realizing that they were doing so. Unfortunately for traditional conceptions of privacy, commercial providers' capacity to track every movement of users' digital lives was also growing.

CONSENTING TO ONLINE TRACKING

Internet law specialist Joanna Kulesza recently noted in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review that while Europeans see protection of personal data as a human right (yet struggle with how to protect it), Americans perceive personal data "primarily as a commercial commodity."

There are several ways that commercial providers track user activity. Social networks require tracking in order to function: A server has to authenticate a password in order to return user requests. Cookies are placed in a browser by a website to remember this information, so that, for example, a Facebook user doesn't have to re-enter his password with every click to a different page on the site. Cookies make the social Internet work; they're a compromise between privacy and utility that is accepted with every single login.

But cookies don't just remember passwords. Once a user has picked up cookies on a website, those cookies can follow the user's activity across the Web, potentially recording information entered into different Web pages and building a profile of the user. As the Germany-based academic André Pomp explains in a paper on tracking Internet users, "if a user visits a computer website first, then a social network website containing name and age and finally a diving website, a cross-site tracker, that is included on all three websites, could be able to create a single profile for this user."

Cookies are just one method of tracking. As Pomp writes, in a typical visit to the Internet, a user will encounter "hundreds of different trackers trying to track users by collecting their data." He notes a recent study in which researchers, by visiting Alexa's top 500 domains and clicking on four random links on each site, stumbled upon 7,264 trackers. Online tracking by commercial entities is pervasive, a fact of online life.

Those who are best at tracking you have the most to gain commercially. Facebook may know your sexual orientation, but Google knows even more about you.

As the Wall Street Journal has noted, "the breadth of Google's information gathering about Internet users rivals that of any single entity, government or corporate."

It is helped in this endeavor by the fact that, as CNN reports, Google on average "accounts for about 25 percent of all consumer Internet traffic running through North American ISPs."

Our cellphones can also reveal where we are at all times. Smartphones are equipped with GPS systems, and even with the GPS turned off, connecting to a cell tower still provides an approximation of a person's location. A study by MIT reveals that, with just four proximate locations, it's possible to identify an individual with 95 percent accuracy.

There are advantages to treating personal data as a commodity. Companies can provide remarkable services at no cost to the user. Google, Facebook and similar companies could certainly command subscription fees if they chose that route, but the fact is that the companies make more money by getting to know their users -- understanding their interests, their aspirations, their likes and dislikes -- than they would by charging users $20 or $30 a year. It's understandable that these companies would treat user data as a commodity, and no doubt many users would willingly sacrifice privacy for top-quality free services.

There are also disadvantages. When we think about the information we are disclosing, and the methods of data analysis now available, we are apt to grow uncomfortable with what these companies know about us -- our social networks, sexual predilections, voting preferences, and much more -- and how they're sharing this information.

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