Under the guise of the national security state, we already know the extent of government surveillance at all levels, from the surveillance apparatus under the Patriot Act to ubiquitous closed circuit cameras. In addition, ever since David Lyon started working on the surveillance society, he has noted the extent to which online presence opens one to all sorts of spying mechanisms, often for commercial purposes.
Over time, the tools of online surveillance have sharpened:
“The Journal conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.
• The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.
• Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them.
• These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.
The new technologies are transforming the Internet economy. Advertisers once primarily bought ads on specific Web pages—a car ad on a car site. Now, advertisers are paying a premium to follow people around the Internet, wherever they go, with highly specific marketing messages.”
And if that does not scare you:
“The Journal examined the 50 most popular U.S. websites, which account for about 40% of the Web pages viewed by Americans. (The Journal also tested its own site, WSJ.com.) It then analyzed the tracking files and programs these sites downloaded onto a test computer.
As a group, the top 50 sites placed 3,180 tracking files in total on the Journal’s test computer. Nearly a third of these were innocuous, deployed to remember the password to a favorite site or tally most-popular articles.
But over two-thirds—2,224—were installed by 131 companies, many of which are in the business of tracking Web users to create rich databases of consumer profiles that can be sold.”
Quite frankly, I would have been surprised if there had not been an opportunity for profit in mass stalking.
Maybe there is already bundling and derivatives involved, who knows, but this is getting close:
“Information about people’s moment-to-moment thoughts and actions, as revealed by their online activity, can change hands quickly. Within seconds of visiting eBay.com or Expedia.com, information detailing a Web surfer’s activity there is likely to be auctioned on the data exchange run by BlueKai, the Seattle startup.
Each day, BlueKai sells 50 million pieces of information like this about specific individuals’ browsing habits, for as little as a tenth of a cent apiece. The auctions can happen instantly, as a website is visited.”
But that is also why, more and more, one sees targeted ads on pretty much every website one visits.