Sunday, March 6, 2011

Identity Peddling – the Newborn Stepchild of Web Technology

My marketing professor in business school always said that the true market size of any consumer group is “one” – meaning every individual has unique tastes that defies bundling them into pre-designed segments. So targeting and catering to that unique person is the holy grail of all advertisers. Classified newspaper ads, mail solicitations, telemarketing have all been looking for the same ultimate prize for decades. And now the friendly web has unleashed a new secret weapon …….

Back in the nineties, it seemed cool when Netscape introduced “cookies” in their browsers so you don’t have to remember passwords, site preferences or the individual contents of your shopping cart. But back then, advertisers cared little about online marketing and we were free to roam and surf without having to worry about who’s stalking us and following our trail in cyberspace. But good old times are always short lived.

Pretty soon third party cookies began to be placed when you visited a site and, in place of helping you remember past surfing info, these text files were designed to be sent back to build a database of your browsing interests. Interestingly, law is yet to catch up and so there is no legal protection against such surveillance. Naturally there is a growing field of legit entrepreneurs that now build databases of consumers like you and me, track our online destination and behaviors and sell them to anyone willing to pay the price. These identity peddlers are increasingly fueling a potentially not-so-holy alliance between the internet and advertisers.

A quick google search revealed many incarnations of these little stealth spies that we are all exposed to… Zombie cookies, Flash cookies, Beacons and on and on. Unlike their original ancestor (the Netscape Navigator cookie), these can hold lot more data, are hard to get rid of and are often hard to find.

As one of the sites suggested, I did a little “YoutTube Test” for Flash cookies. Go to YouTube, launch a music video, check its volume setting, change it. Delete all cookies in browser control setting. Close the browser. Re-open the browser, launch the same video, check the volume setting. Notice that it retains your new setting and did not return to the default setting. That’s your Flash cookie helping you out.

I was intrigued by a recent study  that showed that more intrusive versions of these little text files are now rampant, often scanning in real time almost anything you may be doing on a web page – like clicking a link or typing a domain name - and deploying advanced analytics to estimate your location (zip code), shopping interests, income bracket, medical status, family info, age, gender, and so on. And then the data, supposedly anonymously, are sold in auctions or stock-market like exchanges.

Not surprisingly the sites most loaded with such stealth trackers are sites like online Encyclopedia Britannica’s or that people visit to research a topic of their interest. The WSJ study for instance found that a tracking file from a healthcare ad firm Healthline Networks Inc. snoops on you when you go there and if you are researching topics such as anorexia or eating disorders, you may suddenly be seeing ads from appropriate pharmaceutical firms in your web pages !!  

Web technology has brought the world together, created social media that’s now innate to how the world operates. Good faith sharing (and occasional narcissistic exhibitionism!) is fundamental to the Facebook generation. Such mass marketization of our personal life hits directly at that openness and hence can be un-settling, especially if you have a condition you want to keep private.

So next time you surf the web, be aware that the intimacy between you and your browser page is no longer a closed-door affair. The breadcrumbs you leave are constantly picked up by scavengers who are then peddling them back to anyone willing to pay and anyone who may have something to gain by knowing your identity, habits, interests, and personal pursuits. And more importantly remember that there are no legal limits to how that data can be used.

By the way, all major browsers such as Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari have been stepping up pledging to add additional protection similar to FTC’s “No Calling List” for telemarketers. But ultimately your protection is your responsibility. After all, there may be a little conflict of interest, e.g., limits set by Exploerer may have impact on Bing’s search-based ad business.

And all the social media and Facebook users may have a little extra caution to exercise. Facebook has been in the middle of several privacy breaches in recent months putting in question its promise of keeping its members’ profile data secure. Last October, several media (Wall Street JournalPC Magazine, Washington Post, The Huffington Post) reported on ten most popular apps on  Facebook were transmitting users’ IDs to other companies. While Facebook seems have to taken the corrective steps, the incident showed yet another hole through which you are constantly pried upon by many businesses, some legal and some perhaps not so legal, some benign and some perhaps not so benign. 

Just be aware.