The Wall Street Journal did a pretty serious investigation into the cookies and other bits and pieces that websites put in our computers as we surf our way around the internet. From reading that article I learnt that the process of selling ad space based on our profile is an extremely quick one and can happen even as the page we are viewing is loading. I also learnt that the companies that are building our profiles can offer incredibly precise segmentations, but that they do not actually know who we are.
Here, though, is the rub. Let’s say they don’t know our names, but I’m pretty sure that they could work out who I am based on the sports, technology and health pages I look at. The sites I look at to check movie times would give you a pretty good idea of where in the world I live. On the other hand, all of the data processing is done automatically – no one at these companies is actually trying to work out who anyone is based on their profiles. Frankly, it would be a waste of their time.
But what if the data got out? When AOL released hundreds of thousands of searches in what it thought was a generous gesture to the research community, some zealous investigators tracked down individual users. This suggests that the main privacy issue is one of data protection. Unlike the bank, however, whose security measures you can assess, we don’t really have a clue what is going on in these companies. We know that they will have to pay hefty fines if there are data breaches, which, in the US at least, they are legally obliged to report, and that this should serve as a good reason for them to secure their (our?) data, but perhaps by then the damage will be done.