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Internet Tracking Expanding, Spurs Push For More Privacy

Publication Date: 
September 19, 2013
Source: 
NBC - Bay Area
Author: 
Stephanie Chuang

In an NBC Bay Area interview with Stephanie Chuang, Aleecia McDonald, Stanford Center for Internet and Society Director of Privacy discusses how companies are using targeted ads to track you online and how it’s “up to the users to stand up for themselves.”

Whether it’s checking email or online shopping, people are more connected than ever to the Internet. But if you don’t pay attention, there could be hundreds of companies tracking you from website to website.

For example, think of how many times you’ve searched for something online, then noticed ads for that product or related to it popping up on websites. Targeted ads are growing more popular as various websites and companies bank on getting more revenue from tailoring specific advertisements to consumers.

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That’s how Aleecia M. McDonald, Director of Privacy at Stanford Law, described the way companies track consumers online. She said there could be 100 different companies tracking a user’s activity from one page alone – and the consumer at home usually is completely unaware.

“If you visit one website, you have a whole bunch of other companies tracking you, as well, and then they’re tracking you on other websites, too, so they can continue to track you across the web,” McDonald described. “It’s like peekaboo, right? You have an entire world watching you and you just don’t know it.”

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That’s largely thanks to cookies, text files stored on a hard drive that help websites remember you, whether it’s your password or what’s in your shopping cart. McDonald described it as a unique sort of user ID, “in a lot of cases like your social security number, so that you can be re-identified again and again.”

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On its website, the DAA also said it offers the interactive ad industry’s most comprehensive solution: the Opt-Out Page, described as one site that allows users to stop targeted ads. Critics like McDonald said that’s misleading.

“It turns out what you’re opting out of isn’t data collection,” McDonald said. “It’s out of seeing targeted ads from those companies.”

She also said access to more personal data is at risk as companies become more sophisticated in the way they track. “There are companies that get paid to take the cookie that’s on your hard drive and figure out who you are, what your phone number is and how much you paid for your house.”

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That’s not all. They question how the collected data, which exchanges hands among countless companies, could be used later. McDonald posed a question.

“Does the information that I like fast cars then go to my insurance company and I never even know that that happened?” she asked. “It’s like we’ve built Santa Claus. We’ve built this group that sees what you do online and is aware of what’s going on, your dreams and your hopes.”

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Just this week, talks broke down between the DAA and those working on the Do Not Track effort, a tool that’s supposed to build more access to privacy for consumers. Internet privacy advocates like McDonald and Brock both said it is time for web users at home to take control of their own data.

“You need to turn on Do Not Track to block ads, whatever you find is the right way, go change your preferences in your browser,” McDonald encouraged. “Right now it’s up to the users to stand up for themselves.”