Tracking Your Digital Movements

Have you ever shopped for something online, and then seen advertisements for that product follow you around the internet? This is an attempt to monetize your attention through targeted advertisements. Different entities spend lots of money to get their ads seen by you, whatever form they take. But these clumsy attempts are just one manifestation of a troubling trend.

Our attention is for sale each and every day. We realize this in a small way every time we see a commercial on TV, a print ad in a magazine, or a billboard. We also see ads when we read the news, scroll through our Facebook feeds, or play a ‘free’ game.

Internet ads are less benign, not just taking advantage of the sometimes questionable methods advertisements have long used to draw our attention, but instead targeting those ads to be particularly enticing to the market segment the advertisers think we fit into. And increasingly, many companies are building up large profiles of us behind the scenes, trading and selling the profiles and behavioral data they have on us.

Donald Trump and the Republican congress of the United States just made this easier by signing into law a dismantling of privacy protections put into place during the Obama administration. These regulations would have prevented your internet provider from selling logs of your internet activity to advertisers.

There are two main arguments why this isn’t a big deal, and neither of them holds water. First, some argue, this simply puts the power of regulation back into the hands of (personified) ‘market forces,’ so consumers can simply choose an internet provider that won’t sell their browsing history. Unfortunately, few Americans have much choice when it comes to their internet provider, with 28% of Americans having only 1 broadband option. So while, yes, we could all go back to using a dial-up provider that may protect our privacy, this is not a sensible choice for most Americans.

The second argument is that this isn’t such a big deal because so many sites can track you around the internet as it is. This can be by Google and Facebook, or lesser known actors like AdSonar or DoubleClick. Many companies already aggressively collect data, track us around the internet, and profile us to be advertised at. This kind of data collection and tracking is already a huge privacy nightmare—and currently produces much of the creepy behavior I described earlier.

However, the type of internet tracking that’s commonplace already is one that individuals have at least some power to fight. Using a content blocker can protect you from most companies tracking your web browsing habits. Yes, if you use Facebook, there’s essentially no way to stop them from tracking what you do while on their site. While there are many reasonable concerns about the amount of data Facebook holds on individuals, it’s not entirely unrealistic for individuals to decide to give up Facebook due to the privacy implications.

However, no amount of ad blocking can prevent your ISP from selling your browsing records, and it’s really disturbing if you reflect for a moment on all the data points that your browsing history could give away. The sites you visit would likely indicate what bank you use, what car brand you own, what medical conditions you may have, what hours of the day you’re home, and that’s just scratching the surface.

In fact, by linking together many of these disparate data points, it’s already reasonable to individually identify you based on your browsing habits. Cell phone carriers already sell your data:

The service also combines data from telcos with other information, telling businesses whether shoppers are checking out competitor prices on their phones or just emailing friends. It can tell them the age ranges and genders of people who visited a store location between 10 a.m. and noon, and link location and demographic data with shoppers’ web browsing history. —Kate Kaye

This bill makes that easier, by whittling away at what few privacy protections and what little consumer choice existed. It’s already incredibly challenging to stay off of advertisers’ radars, given that our purchase histories at stores are tracked by our credit card numbers, or the fact that we’ve purchased a new car or moved is sold to advertising databases. But just because things are already bad does not suggest that we should give up.

This sort of privacy breach is just one manifestation of our blind, senseless focus on monetization. Whether it’s the food and health care necessary for life, or your physical or electronic movements as tracked by your mobile phone, there’s no resource that’s too essential or too private for someone to profit off of.

There are of course steps that we can take, including using an ad or content blocker, using a trusted VPN, or even routing our sensitive browsing over Tor. There are proposals out there to re-architect the internet, building an encrypted, distributed layer on top of the internet, to make this type of tracking and profiling more difficult.

All of these steps are going to get plenty of pushback from politicians whose pockets are lined by the advertisers who seek to monetize our attention, or by those who sell privacy-invading tool in the interest of ‘national security.’ That is why we must take action. Speak out to your representatives in congress. Support organizations like the ACLU or the EFF. Support political parties who’d take a stronger stance for privacy protections. Use tools that disrupt the monetization of your attention. And, though it may be obvious, perhaps spend a little bit less time browsing the internet.