OK, I'm being tracked. Why is this a problem?
Being tracked alone isn't a problem. But, being tracked in ways you can't control means that organizations can be using your data for all sorts of purposes you may not even know about.
Why is it a problem for a company to have my data?
Many companies behave ethically and responsibly with your data, and try to use it to both improve their business and make you a happy customer. However, organizations aren't governed by effective privacy rules and laws, the advantages to monetizing your data loom large.
Why is it a problem for a company to sell my data?
When a company collects your data without your consent, and then sells that data, they are effectively putting you to work and keeping the proceeds for themselves. In the case of ISPs, you already pay for their service - soon, they will be able to make additional money from every minute you spend online.
Why do other companies want to buy my data?
Most of the time they're not buying a data set to take away and put on a hard drive somewhere. What they're buying is access to actionable data, so they can target messages to people who will be receptive. Plenty of targeting is innocuous and can be genuinely helpful. Getting a sale offer on a product you recently viewed can be a win-win - the company makes a sale, and the customer is happy about the discount. Targeting (and re-targeting) makes that possible.
Well then why is targeting a problem?
When data sets are blended together - which is becoming more and more accessible - things can start to get creepy. For example: let's imagine that Jane Internet loves cats, and visits cats.com several times a day. One day she's considering how to vote on a local building resolution, and she does some research by visiting two political news sites at opposite ends of the spectrum. She reads one article on each site, getting a balanced view of the issue. Let's imagine that one of these sites has access to this blended data and retargeting capabilities. Soon, Jane starts to see advertisements related to the resolution, encouraging her to vote for the resolution because, the ad says, that vote will be best for the local wildlife.
Jane has no way of knowing this, but that message has been chosen specifically for her, because of her past visits to cats.com. Without that awareness and context, Jane believes that the pro-wildlife message is one of the campaign's primary talking points, and is encouraged to vote in agreement. The other side never has any opportunity to discuss or debate this point - and in fact, they don't even know that this animal-related topic has been raised, because they've never even seen it. Jane's attempt to be a well-informed voter has been usurped by retargeting. And, perhaps most importantly, Jane doesn't even know this has happened.
Well then...what should I do?
We must address this issue in many ways.
- Contact your representatives to let them know you care about data privacy.
- Educate yourself about matters of online privacy, including ways to identify retargeted information when you see it.
- Purchase subscriptions to sites you trust, or use ad blockers to prevent unwanted retargeting.
- Use Noiszy to protect yourself and disrupt the "data market."