For many of us the Internet is like a new pet, we love to play with it but sooner or later we know we are going to get bitten. We know that our digital footprint is being tracked and recorded, mined and sold many different ways, but many of us do not care, at least not until now.
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, more than one half of those surveyed said they worried about privacy issues with companies such as Google, yet 60% visited the search engine on a weekly basis. Why – because they deliver results better than anyone. The promise of finding the answer to a question almost immediately is too compelling for most of us to consider spending the time going to a library to search for the answer perhaps in a more secure manner.
The fact that we are being tracked as you browse the internet is now more common and generally understood than ever before. Nearly every action people take online is progamatically monitored by special web tools known as “cookies”, “beacons” or other such tracking devices. They are an important piece of the puzzle in delivering a rich online experience, from timing how long web users spend on a website to remembering the items they put in their shopping baskets. Because of this, the browser now knows as much as about people’s lives and habits as ever. Not only is big brother watching but he is suggesting you next move.
The growth of such tracking devices has been rapid. In 1997, only about 23% of the world’s 100 most popular websites had cookies installed. By 2011 all of them had rock solid tracking capabilities. Why the rush to track us? The answer is of course driven by the website publisher’s attempt to increasingly make money by maximizing the revenue derived from each eyeball that visits their site.
How are web consumers fighting back?
Well, software that covers people’s tracks online is increasingly popular with individuals. For years, tools that blocked cookies and IP addresses were the domain of tech savvy It professionals skilled in the Unix and Linux tools necessary to surf the web anonymously – now many millions use them. Just Google “hide my IP Address” sometime to get a list of both free and paid download options available to surf the web anonymously.
The anonymous web surfing trend closely mimics the antivirus software trend took off with huge adoption back in the 1990s when individuals began to realize that their PCs were vulnerable to malware and the proliferation of many viruses.
Now organizations such as Abine makes what is know as DoNotTrackMe software. This is software designed to block cookies and other tracking tools. The Albine DoNotTrackMe program has been downloaded more than 3 million times since its launch in February 2012.
This trend is also seen at other anti web tracking software companies. Ghostery, for example, produces a product that tells users what software a website is using to track them and then blocks it on request. To date Ghostery has registered 40 million active users around the world.
The number of tracking devices used by websites has almost doubled in three years, according to the WebPrivacy Census , published by the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California. The tools for monitoring a users activities are also increasingly sophisticated. In 2009 the 100 most popular sites – ranging from Google to CNN.com – used a total of more than 3,500 cookies to track visitors to their sites. Today that figure stands at just under 7,000. About a fifth of these sites use at least 100 cookies each.
Retailers are among the most enthusiastic users of the technology. Just as retail chains watch how customers behave in a shop, online retailers monitor how long customers linger, where they arrive from and what they think about buying.
The growing population of web surfers believe that data collection should be a transparent transaction and that the individual owns their own click stream data, not the publisher that simply collects it.
If I visit your site and I get my content for free and you want some data about my experience on your site then lets work together and agree on that data exchange, do not just grab my click stream data and use it without my knowledge or consent.
Tracking Users Around the World
Recently, Microsoft introduced “do not track” as standard on its Internet Explorer web browser. The technology fires a request at websites not to use tracking technologies, and the move both surprised and annoyed the advertising industry. This is because the Internet Explorer browser is used by about half of all internet users and if you suddenly give them the ability to surf anonymously and block special rich media advertisements targeted towards a website visitor then you can potentially rock their world in a meaningful manner.
Google’s Chrome browser followed with its own version of “do not track” in November 2012. While these tools only request that websites do not track users – and can thus be ignored – they are testament to the fact that Internet users are more aware of privacy concerns than ever before.
AnchorFree, a privacy app software vendor offers an app which encrypts every web page a user visits. To date it has been installed by more than 100 million people and is downloaded more than 1 million times per week.
Anti-tracking companies say the market has potential to grow further. While users are more cautious about who might access their data and how it would be used, there is a still a big discrepancy between the precautions people take online compared to offline.
According to IDG, just over a third of digital data – such as private emails, or bank account details – should be kept secure, whether for regulatory or privacy purposes, only a fifth is, according the recent annual Digital Universe study.
Beyond security, however, what the bulk of users want is something very basic and that is privacy. The problem though is that the idea of online anonymity clashes with the prvailing view of “share everything” approach to the internet and the opportunities to make money in the process. I believe in the end we can have both, but that time will come when the technology exists to compensate individual web users for the use of their own click stream data. Stay tuned..
Published by myCIOview.com