Privacy and the Internet
Privacy and the Internet

A recent study by the Wall Street Journal found that top 50 websites in the U.S installed an average of 64 tracking devices per site onto a person’s computer. Some websites, such as, installed more than 100 devices. Another study by AT&T and Worcester Polytechnic Institute found that 80 percent of the top 1,000 websites use tracking technology.1 There is no doubt that online privacy exists anymore.

Tracking and Selling Information Online

The shift to more targeted advertising, based on a user’s hobbies, interests, and even more personal information has turned the Internet into a market researcher’s paradise, where information about users is up for sale. Since targeted advertisements cost an average of $4.12 per 1,000 viewers, compared to $1.98 for non-targeted advertisements,2 companies will continue to innovate and find new ways to track users across larger number of websites.

Tracking companies, such as Lotame, for example, use a software program called beacons to track what Internet users type on websites and where the users move their mouse. This information is then packaged into a profile (the user’s name though remains anonymous).3 Some companies, such as Yahoo, use their vast networks to track users across multiple websites using “third party tracking files.” Yahoo advertisements can be found across the web, thus giving companies like Yahoo the ability to create a robust profile about their users/visitors.4

Even more robust profiles are being created by companies such as Media6Degrees Inc, who are taking information from Facebook profiles and selling them.5 Facebook and other social networking sites are uniquely positioned to take advantage of targeted advertising, due to their rich trove of personal information about its users. After much criticism, Facebook changed their privacy settings, allowing users to decide whether to share their personal information with everyone, friends of friends, or just friends.6

Once the online profiles are developed, data exchanges take information from the tracking companies and sell them on auctions; sometimes the user is still on the site while his or her information is being sold.7

Reactions by Google and Microsoft

Google and Microsoft are reexamining their business models. Microsoft executives debated whether the Explorer8.0 browser should automatically thwart tracking devices by giving users a default with more privacy. In the end, Microsoft executives decided that too much advertising dollars would be lost, so Explorer8.0 requires users to turn on the privacy settings every time they start the software.8

Google is reexamining its mission statement and is deciding how much they want to profit from their vast amount of information about users. Google’s past decision to use only contextual advertisements, based on key word searches, resulted in revenue loss. Hence, Google bought Doubleclick, a leader in targeted advertising.9

Google can glean information about its users, not only from its search engine, but from its other products as well, such as Google docs, Google sites, Google calendar, Chrome (Google’s web browser), Google Health, Google Desktop, Gmail, etc.. Since Google advertisements appear in more than one million non-Google websites, it has the capacity to truly track user behaviors across the Internet.

While, Google does not use information from Gmail or its other services for targeted advertisements on non-Google sites, it has started offering “interest based advertisements” that allows a select group of advertisers to track users across any website that uses Google display advertisements.10

Google has recently seen controversy over its StreetView application, a program that is part of Google Maps that allows users to view city streets in 30 countries. Faces and car registration plates are blurred in these photos. To collect the data, Google sent out a fleet of cars to photograph the streets; charges have been levied that the cars used insecure wireless networks to collect private information. South Korea, Spain, Germany, the U.S. and the U.K have investigations pending.11 German officials want Google to offer an opt-out mechanism, so that individuals can choose to have pictures of their homes removed from the program.12

Government Regulations

Data tracking regulations that include user consent are now being debated within the U.S. Congress. European regulators have already decided that “opt-out” mechanisms that prevent the installation of cookies are not sufficient.13

Despite having stricter rules for collecting, using, and selling information online, the EU does require ISPs to store personal data in case the governments want to investigate an individual user. The European Parliament is debating whether to require Google to hold onto to user information as well. European citizens are already suing their own governments over the new laws, stating that the government collection and mining of personal data is a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.14

Other governments want access to information as well. The United Arab Emirates threatened to shut down Blackberry service, unless given access to circumvent encryption codes. The Obama administration has proposed new laws to obtain browser histories and e-mail addresses of U.S. citizens, without judicial oversight.15


Online tracking allows many websites to offer their products for free. Search engines, such as Google, use on advertising profits to play employees, create new products, etc. Many newspapers rely on advertising to offer their news stories online for free. Websites, such as, rely on advertisements to stay in business and online, providing helpful information to users. The price for these “free” products is that user information is amassed and sold to corporate buyers.

While governments around the world debate proposed limitations to online tracking, they also want access to the vast amounts of information available through the various tracking mechanisms. What information should be available for sale to corporations and be made available for free to governments? Should users just expect that nothing online is secure, even medical or financial information? Would the Internet survive or thrive without advertisements? A free resource always has its costs.

1 Angwin, Julia. “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.” Wall Street Journal. July 30, 2010.
2 Ibid.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Gelles, David. “Facebook bows to pressure with overhaul of privacy controls.” Financial Times. May 27, 2010.
7 Angwin, Julia. “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.” Wall Street Journal. July 30, 2010.
8 Wingfield, Nick. “Microsoft Quashed Effort to Boost Online Privacy.” Wall Street Journal. August 2, 2010.
9 “Google Agonizes on Privacy as Ad World Vaults Ahead.” Wall Street Journal. August 10, 2010. 10 Ibid.
11 Jung-A, Song. “South Korean police raid Google offices.” Financial Times. August 10, 2010.
12 “Google bends to German privacy concerns.” August 19, 2010.
13 “Protecting Privacy.” Financial Times. July 29, 2009.
14 Walsh, Jason. “Is Europe building Big Brother?” Christian Science Monitor. August 3, 2010.
15 Ibid.

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