You share on Facebook, and Google+. You post on Twitter, and watch videos on YouTube. What you may not know is these services can share what they know about you to search engines and advertisers. The detail of available market data available to advertisers is very good for finding potential clients, and it is very useful for increasing a business’ visibility. But it also has some serious implications on privacy. In my experience, non-profits and associations are more likely to be concerned about the online privacy of their staff and constituencies. Perhaps it’s because they do not directly benefit from targeted advertising.
Before the Age of the Internet, nearly all market data was aggregated on a “macro” level; today, it is highly focused on a “micro” level. The buzzword around advertising is “Non Personally Identifiable Information” (non-PII): in theory, the data advertisers collect is not about you as the individual; it’s about your habits and interests. Advertisers want to sell you what you want to buy, not identify you. In fact, advertisers go to lengths to avoid collecting PII. But does not collecting PII (or collecting only non-PII) protect your privacy?
There are documented cases of pregnant women being identified through their purchases and targeted with direct mail before other members of their household were aware of the pregnancy. (Wow!) Researchers have been able to re-identify data that was carefully “anonymized” to pinpoint individuals. Without using legally protected Personally Identifiable Information (PII) per se, public information can be combined to create startling accurate identifiers. For example, it has been shown that, in 1990, 87% of the population of the United States could be uniquely identified by just three pieces of information, namely gender, ZIP code, and full date of birth.
Online privacy and You.
Should we worry about protecting our privacy? This is very topical question, important to many people. The answer depends on you. Are you the kind of person who uses a fake phone number when you sign up for a grocery store discount card? Or do you believe that your whole life is online anyway, so why not gain some benefit from targeted content?
We cannot give you any complete answers here, and we certainly don’t want to give you any pat answers. We can, however, point you toward more info about the subject. Education is the key to protecting yourself, so here are some links to get you started.
- Stephen Colbert skit on advertising and privacy (funny AND informative)
- Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Future of Privacy forum.
- “Anonymized” data really isn’t—and here’s why not—ARS technica
- Review your Facebook privacy settings: http://www.reclaimprivacy.org/
- Review your Google privacy settings: http://www.google.com/goodtoknow/
Understanding online advertising and cookies
- Online advertisers’ self-regulatory program.
- donotrack.us project — Stanford researchers behind Do Not Track
Manage ad cookies through your browser
- Chrome: Keep my Opt-outs plugin
- Safari added a built-in “Do Not Track” feature under the Developer menu. This feature is not turned on by default.
- Firefox also has a built-in “Do Not Track” feature that needs to be manually turned on.
- Personal health records sent to Governor, defender of data “anonymization”: http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/09/your-secrets-live-online-in-databases-of-ruin.ars
- Wikipedia, Personally Identifiable Information, with “Comments of Latanya Sweeney, Ph.D. on ‘Standards of Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information,’” Carnegie Mellon University