In the web version of the latest online privacy expose by The Wall Street Journal, there’s a sidebar with previous articles in the much-loved “What They Know” series. With headlines like “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets,” “Stalkers Exploit Cellphone GPS” and “Your Apps Are Watching You,” and I have trouble believing fans of the series would even dare venture to WSJ.com to read about the Facebook’s or Google’s latest privacy encroachment.
I imagine most avid WTK readers safely tucked away in isolation booths, handling the print edition with latex gloves while tightly clutching their tin-foil hats.
Yup, WTK (so close to “WTF?”, my typical reaction when reading entries in the series) is back with a new shocking privacy intrusion, and they roped not only Facebook but also Google and Twitter. The mighty triumvirate! So what are these meddling kids guilty of this time?
The social networks’ widgets — the Like button, the Retweet knob and… well, Google Buzz has some doohickey that a whole five people probably use — are collecting browser data and sending it back to the network even if a user doesn’t click. The only way to stop the collection is to “explicitly” log out of Facebook, Twitter or your Google account. WSJ discovered this by charging Brian Kennish, former Google engineer and maker of anti-online-tracking software Disconnect, with examining data collection on the Google ad network’s top 1,000 sites.
Such data could be used for tracking and building profiles for targeting. There’s no explicit proof anywhere that the data are, but they could be.
The networks claim that the data collection is a side effect to how these smart widgets work. Twitter claims it deletes this kinda superflous data immediately, while Facebook and Google say they anonymize them (similar to what Apple and Google do with location data for smartphones) to analyze widget performance and “and help other websites attract visitors” before deleting them — within 90 days for Facebook, two weeks for Google.
I’m curious what helping “other websites attract visitors” entails, but I’m inclined to think the collection is innocuos. I’d argue a lot of this browser information is junk data — fatty, no-good data that would probably mar targeting efforts.
Consider Gmail ads — how many show up that reference a random term within the text? If I commented that so-and-so isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, I might receive an ad for wrench sets on sale. That’s dumb targeting, likely to annoy me or justify my continued ambivalence toward online advertising.
There’s a prevalent paranoid theory that Facebook and Google are sinking vast amounts of browser information into detailed, secret profiles that could be used for targeting ads (or worse — just wait till Mark Zuckerberg is president!). But browsing data is so plentiful that the majority is useless — unless the browser engages with the site at hand by using a social widget.
At the same time, Google, Facebook and Twitter could probably look into a remedy for collecting unnecessary data — call it an olive branch to the tin-foil hat community.