July 13, 2015
Many people are careful about the personal information they provide on the web and then expect that websites’ ability to track and identify them should be limited. This is a reasonable expectation to have. It is currently not true.
Without asking any identifying information it is possible to determine your physical location quite accurately (see your location info) and to uniquely identify your browser (see Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Panopticlick) from readily available data provided by your browser.
Online ad companies use a technology known as “tracking cookies”. Sites showing their ads must contact the company to obtain the relevant ad information for display. The information exchange between the visited site and the ad company includes the tracking cookie which resides on the user’s computer. This enables the ad company to track a person’s wanderings across the Internet. The tracked information can include things such as the sites visited, the specific pages from those sites, the order in which different sites were visited, the time and date of the visit and the frequency of visits.
Advertisers using Google AdWords have the option to remarket to potential clients. This means they get to show their ads multiple times at multiple locations to the same people. The remarketing technology requires that Google be able to identify individuals uniquely. Although they do not provide the identifying information to the advertisers, some of it can be inferred by the ad showing site.
The above techniques can identify and track users across the Internet without them having to log in or identify themselves anywhere.
Individual tracking may seem irrelevant when discussed in blogs. In practice tracking means that you can start surfing the web with a brand new computer, without logging in anywhere, and you can be uniquely identified within hours or possibly minutes. Being uniquely identified means that when the almost 3,000 million Internet users are lined up, Google can point straight to you and say “That’s the one”.
That is a creepy idea. If one further considers the many examples where a change of ruling party reclassified law abiding citizens as criminals within a day or normal well intentioned people were persecuted for their past achievements, the idea turns from creepy to downright threatening.
People from countries perceived as politically stable are prone to think that they are not under threat. According to professor James Duane1 and Supreme Court Justice Breyer2, it is almost impossible for anyone to know whether a particular action or opinion may be deemed illegal when being investigated by authorities. And they are talking about the USA.
Being uniquely identified and associated with opinions and actions which some may find threatening or undesirable is dangerous. There are countries where it is dangerous right now and some where it will soon be. In the others it may or may not be dangerous some time in the future. You will never know until it is too late.
”… the virtually infinite variety of factual circumstances that might trigger an investigation into a possible violation of the law, make it difficult for anyone to know, in advance, just when a particular set of statements might later appear (to a prosecutor) to be relevant to some such investigation.” [Reference] ↩
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