I had been noticing for some time now how every time I visited Flipkart, they showed me a list of items I might have browsed through on an earlier date. It could only mean that they kept track of the IP addresses of users and their browsing behaviour on the site. The thought made me uncomfortable but I shrugged it off as an instance of over-zealous marketing. Inappropriate, but probably harmless.
A few days back I posted pics of my younger daughter’s first day in school, on Facebook. A few hours later I got a mail from Flipkart, informing me about the latest little water-bottles, schoolbags, lunch-boxes, pencil-boxes available on their site. I blinked in disbelief–this was creepy. How had Flipkart figured out that I had a kid who had just started school? Was it just a coincidence?
Facebook ,of course, is privy to a host of personal information. Our dates of birth, home-towns, the schools and colleges we went to, where we work, who our friends and relatives are, our likes and interests and a lot more. Facebook loves to make a hoohaa from time to time about account security, urging users to have stronger passwords etc. They also have excellent privacy setting options. Is it all just an eyewash, a device to lull us into a false sense of security, while they disclose personal info to random advertisers for a price ? Do they also keep an eye on our photographs to be able to glean information which might be of use?
A quick search on the net reveals that this has been going on for a while now, and there is a proper word for this phenomenon–behavioural targeting. Not surprisingly, many articles on behavioural targeting available on the net appear to be apologists for the same–they acknowledge that a section of users is vehemently opposed to this blatant breach of privacy, but go on to extol the innumerable benefits it offers the USERS in terms of a better and more focussed marketing experience.
Which is why, they tell us, we shouldn’t grudge those sites and those ad-agencies the moolah they rake in in the process–after all it benefits everybody!! And in any case it has already revolutionized internet marketing and it is only a matter of time before public sentiment comes around and warms up to the idea.
But what if the user does not want these benefits? Shouldn’t there be an opt-out route?
I think there’s something wrong with the idea of having your clicks tracked without your consent or even knowledge. I mean, why not leave it to the users and see if they want to have this wonderful marketing experience at the cost of their privacy? If they do, let them sign up for it by all means!
I am sure I have nothing to hide but that hardly means I should be okay with having my browsing behaviour monitored and being b-targeted. Public protests against these invasive policies have not been strong enough for governments to intervene. Even in the US, where citizens are very aware of privacy issues, Google was able to push through its new policies without any problem–ditto for most of the rest of the world. Only in Europe was the juggernaut brought to a halt.
For now, both Google and Facebook appear to swear by the mantra,” Put up, or get the hell out of the way.”