Thursday, July 5, 2012

Online Privacy In America -
Quickly Vanishing If It Ever Existed

The FTC, which is the agency charged with ferreting out inappropriate and illegal data mining and tracking operations online, lacks an adequate budget, and has the support of neither major political party, because even businesses who have had a reputation for consumer-friendliness (think of Google's "don't be evil") want to be able to do such mining and tracking free of government regulation. Yes, Google does some of these things, including some questionably legal interceptions of inadequately protected Wi-Fi signals from its Street View cars as they troll the streets ostensibly only for 360° photos.

Illegal Wi-Fi interception notwithstanding, as long as companies engage in mining and tracking, your online habits are followed in minute detail by certain kinds of tracking cookies placed in your browser by web sites you visit, placed there by advertisers who want to watch you shop. (Note: most cookies are innocuous, and for purely practical and technical reasons, web sites you visit may need to save information from one session to the next, mostly for your convenience. There may be circumstances under which you will want to clear your cookies, but in general, doing so only inconveniences you and does not obstruct those tracking you all that much.)

What's next, mosquito-sized drones with cameras, following you as you walk through a physical shopping mall? The effect is not that different, and the drones are said to exist already... just google "mosquito-sized drone". Cell phone tracking by businesses that want to sell you something is already infamous, especially for smartphones. Electronic and visual tracking is the staple of retail business in our age.

Peter Maass at offers a long but fact-filled story on the practices, the ambiguity of laws, the actions of the FTC, etc. If you spend much time online, and especially if you buy anything online, it's worth your time to read the article.

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