Thinking Tech

Computer users rebel at being tracked

Computer users rebel at being tracked

Posting in Technology

New lawsuits are just the beginning of a long battle over privacy online.

The Wall Street Journal has found half a dozen recent federal lawsuits filed by people who claim that companies are using sophisticated technology to track their behavior when they go online.

Defendants include CNN, the Travel Channel, Fox Entertainment Group, AmericanIdol.com and several other companies.All the companies either deny there's a problem or couldn't be reached. The New York Times has a story about the lawsuits here.

The suits claim that some of the companies use Flash cookies, a technology developed by Adobe that remembers your preferences on volume and so on when you watch online videos by planting a small file on your computer.

But Flash cookies can also be used to recreate regular HTML cookies, which store other information about computer users as they surf the Web -- even after the users have deleted them. Adobe condemns this practice and offers an online tool so users can get rid of Flash cookies if they want to.

Mobile users are also at risk of being tracked, although another defendant, Ringleader Digital, told the Journal that users can opt out of the tracking by going to Ringleader's Web site.

Some of the suits were inspired by a scary series the Journal has been running on online privacy. Even if some of the attorneys who filed these lawsuits are the equivalent of ambulance chasers, it's worth a read.

Among the findings:

• ...The nation's 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

• Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to "cookie" files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.

• These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

- Financial information and health information are no longer off-limits.

There are now at least two bills in Congress that would regulate online privacy, and the Federal Trade Commission, which has been holding hearings and investigating companies, is expected to issue a report.

But I believe this is the beginning of a long battle between computer users and the companies that make and use online tracking technology. Google, for instance, (which is not named in these suits), wants the information collected about us online to be so perfect that we would be willing to pay to get ads because we would find them so useful.

"More information is better," Google vice president Penry Price told a meeting of partners that I attended last week for Google Analytics -- Google's tool for analyzing Web sites and Web behavior.

Instead of the online exchanges that swap our information without us knowing, Price wants a pool of data from cookies that all companies involved in online advertising would be allowed to use in a defined, responsible way -- but he doesn't know how the industry is going to get to that point.

What do you think should happen to your online data?

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Deborah Gage

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Deborah Gage has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Minnesota Public Radio, Baseline and various magazines and newspapers. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure