Web users demand privacy, then give it up

As Internet companies track our every move, what to do about data privacy? Do we need a comprehensive law or should individuals be responsible?

Published August 16, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Via TechDirt, a less-than-shocking illustration about Web users and our approach to privacy: We say we want it, but do little to obtain it. A survey of privacy attitudes in the U.K. found that 84 percent of Internet users claimed they would not divulge details of their income online. Later in the survey, the same group was asked to divulge their income data. Eighty-seven percent of them did so. Hello, cognitive dissonance!

It's worth noting that the survey was carried out by AOL, and the sample size was only 1,000 people, so skepticism of the methodology is warranted. Not to mention that there's no penalty for lying about your income in such cases, as I always do (I mean, why not aspire to a better life?). But the results don't seem far off what many other surveys have long established, e.g., that most of us will and do routinely trade away personal data for convenience or meager rewards.

Congress, meanwhile, is taking a renewed look at creating some kind of Privacy Bill of Rights, after the House Energy and Commerce Committee confirmed another piece of conventional wisdom, that companies like Google and Yahoo are tracking some of their users' behaviors without their consent (although they do often allow in-the-know users to opt out):

Google, in its letter to committee Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.), Markey, Stearns and Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Tex.), stressed that it did not engage in potentially the most invasive of technologies -- deep-packet inspection, which companies such as NebuAd have tested with some broadband providers. But Google did note that it had begun to use across its network the "DoubleClick ad-serving cookie," a computer code that allows the tracking of Web surfing. Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy and government affairs, stated in the letter that users could opt out of a single cookie for both DoubleClick and the Google content network. He also said that Google was not yet focusing on "behavioral" advertising, which depends on Web site tracking. But on its official blog last week, Google touted how its recent $3.1 billion merger with DoubleClick provides advertisers "insight into the number of people who have seen an ad campaign," as well as "how many users visited their sites after seeing an ad." "Google is slowly embracing a full-blown behavioral targeting over its vast network of services and sites," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. He said that Google, through its vast data collection and sophisticated data analysis tools, "knows more about consumers than practically anyone." [All the companies' letters can be found here].

So, should Congress do as we say or do as we do? The bill, to be introduced by Edward Markey, D-Mass., would mandate that companies only use some types of tracking -- it's not clear yet which -- on people who have opted in. Much of the technical set seems to tend to favor the personal responsibility route: People should take charge of their own privacy, by turning off cookies and ceasing to give away information unnecessarily. Having once spent a month trying to collect my own personal data from companies that have gathered it on me -- and finding that most of them wouldn't even tell me what they know about me -- I tend to side with Bruce Schneier in favoring a comprehensive data- privacy law. Sometimes market externalities need a little reining in. Michael Zimmer, a fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, arguing (in a well-worth-reading paper) that such legislation may prove unwieldy, offers a third option: technology that makes it simpler to take command of your own data. I'm curious which approach Machinist readers favor.

By Evan Ratliff

Evan Ratliff is a contributing editor to Wired magazine, and the co-author of "Safe: The Race to Protect Ourselves in a Newly Dangerous World."

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