How Much Do They Know?

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.

Then I noticed that a few ads which I had clicked on my facebook page recently began to appear on the other sites I frequently visited. This made me sit up. Is it Google telling those companies which sites I visit? Quite a possibility. To its credit, Google has been very upfront about its privacy policy or rather the absence of one. It’s the nature of the beast then, and as long as I cannot find a good enough alternative to Gmail and Google search I suppose I had better put up with it too.

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?

Has Facebook been selling such personal information to interested parties? Google had the decency to at least inform users several months in advance of its new privacy policy. I don’t remember Facebook doing any such thing in the recent past.

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.”

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16 Responses to How Much Do They Know?

  1. G Vishwanath says:

    Your experience is common.

    I have always known that there is no privacy if you use Google.

    Even when I signed up for a google email account, I knew that their system software was scanning the contents of my email and there were relevant ads displayed on products that were either the same as some of the words in the text of the email or similar or related.

    I don’t crib. I am not paying a paisa for all the services that Google offers.
    Should I protest to Google? How can I? Who is asking me to use their free services?
    I use Google search, Google mail, google docs day in and day out without paying for it.
    Can I protest if in return they track my browsing habits and use them for their commercial advantage? It would be different if I had been a paying subscriber and there was a privacy policy in place.

    In the good old days, we wrote postcards.
    Any body could read them, right from the sorters in the Post office, to the postman who delivered them and also any curious and nosy neighbour of the addressee. No one thought this was an issue. Those days Post cards cost us just 5 paise and it was an amazingly cheap way to communicate with anyone any where in the country. If we needed privacy we paid extra and wrote Inland letters which could be folded up and sealed or we put our letters in sealed envelopes with postage stamps. With internet email, we don’t pay at all and can do much more than what we could do with postcards. Should we be cribbing?

    I am fully aware that my IP address can be easily monitored by interested persons and that I cannot keep my online activities a secret from a person who is determined to know.
    I don’t believe deleting browsing history is sufficient to protect your privacy. You can perhaps use that to prevent another user of the same computer from finding out what sites you have visited but you cannot prevent ISPs or other web site owners/managers from keeping track of your online activity. I have heard that there are ways of browsing anonymously, but I haven’t cared to find out how. Frankly, I am not concerned. If I wanted to do something that I don’t want others to monitor then I will not use my personal laptop but visit a cyber cafe. Not that I have needed to do this any time in my life till now.

    I am more concerned at my cell phone number being made available to the telemarketing chaps. I can live with spam email, as my filters work well and these spam emails are not intrusive. I simply delete them en masse periodically, from my spam folder without opening any of them but merely running my eye over the subject line or sender’s name to see if accidentally a genuine mail has been wrongly classified as spam. But spam phone calls are intrusive and irritating. I get even more annoyed when I get these calls when I am not in station and have to incur roaming charges. Besides mobile telephony is not a free service. I pay for it. They should not use my cell phone for telemarketing. It is unfair. Cell phone companies have “do not disturb” facilities but why do they need six weeks to implement blocking telemarketers of spam sms messages? Obviously they have no incentive to cooperate with the subscriber. They earn revenue from these calls and sms messages.

    I have reconciled to the situation now. I suppose loss of privacy is something we have to live with if we want to enjoy the facility of cheap internet services. In a really serious situation, I know how to send an email confidentially. All I do is to zip it with a password and send it out as an attachment.


    • GVji,
      It may just be that I was not paying attention, but I have been aware of these hyper-relevant ads on google/fb only during the last few months–the ads were definitely more random earlier IMO. Initially I tended to shrug it off but I did find the facebook-flipKart experience too disconcerting, and I think that is the crux of the problem here–once people agree to it in principle, there’s no telling what it won’t do.

      Like everyone else I too am reconciled to the idea of being click-tracked by ad-related companies with the blessings of Google and others, mostly because there just isn’t a good enough alternative to Google. I don’t think they are entitled to do what they like just because their services are free, though.

      The fact is, they have always been free and they have been making loads of money even in the pre-new-policy days–by ads that were mostly random. They couldn’t have become a 23billion dollar company by doing things for charity. I do give google credit for telling users in advance about just what it was up to, though, which is more than I can say about the others.. Google might well have decided to be upfront about it because it knew users had little choice but to comply, but then that’s how these things work.

      I don’t actually mind Google reading my mails–they are so mundane for the most part that Google won’t find anything of use even if their life depended on it –but I do mind facebook analysing my photographs. Facebook is hardly indispensible like Google is, and hence cannot get away with murder. Like RM below, I am now definitely going to be very wary and cautious about uploading stuff on fb.

    • Scribby says:

      I agree 100% with GVji on spam phone calls! They irk me to no bounds!

  2. R's Mom says:

    I think I agree with GV-jee on the end of the day, while spam emails are managable, the spam calls are what is extremely irritating….

    you know what, even I have noticed this happening..and I thought I was just paranoid..the day I search for something on the net, the next day, I get those ads on sometimes even extends to me getting sms regarding that…for eg. I search for some holiday on the net, and I get an sms saying this holiday and that holiday.of course I may be paranoid, but thats one of the reasons, I have decided to stop updating stuff on facebook..its getting scarier by the day!

    • Oh I completely agree with both Gvji and you that spam calls are way more annoying than spam emails. Spam emails don’t bother me at all–both Gmail and WordPress have very functional spam-detection features–all one has to do is to take a look at them once in a while to make sure a genuine message/commnet wasn’t mistaken for spam. I wasn’t really cribbing about spam emails at all 🙂
      Glad to know you’ve noticed this thing too–it is indeed going a little over the top.

  3. Ashwathy says:

    I usually do ‘ignore’ mode for most of the ads. But now that you mention it, yes they do track and monitor online surfing patterns. Google’s new policy clearly states that they would be doing it and for the users to delete their account in case they don’t want to be associated with it. Like GV-jee says, we are using Google without paying, so the company turns around and decides to make commercial benefit out of its users.
    It’s creepy though. Millions of people use the internet without really knowing how their data is tracked….and how ti is being used. Does anyone REALLY have any clue?

    • True, Ashwathy. Google opened the floodgates with its new privacy policy–they knew they could get away with it because users don’t have a choice, and they were right. Other sites, fb included, have apparently followed suit–its all irresistibly lucrative — on the pretext that if it is okay for Google, it should be okay for them too! And so we find these targeted ads bombarding us as never before.
      Its creepy for sure. Maybe we’ll get used to it eventually.

  4. Fem says:

    I just use FB to rant about stuff (not personal), and don’t care two hoots about who is watching them. Earlier I used it for personal updates, but I no longer want to because I am getting increasingly disturbed by some of the things FB does not inform to its users. Till today, many users are unaware of who exactly can see their photos. Photos can be shared or downloaded by friends, so even if your own security measures are high, ultimately if you have even one stupid friend, your security goes down the drain. The recently introduced timeline has also increased the likelihood of stalking behaviour. Years ago, I shifted from Orkut to Facebook because of the privacy it offered, but that is no longer the case. I have realized I don’t need to share everything with people, and made my peace with it.

    Also, I agree with GV about spam calls. Forget telemarketing, even the phone company calls you when you are on roaming to inform you about stupid offers. You might want to put your phone number on Do not Disturb facility if you get too many of the spam calls. Thank goodness the Govt. has done at least one useful thing.

    • Hmm, I’ve decided to take care not to upload pics on fb and restrict myself to posting status updates of a very general nature which I wouldn’t mind sharing with the whole world. Guess I’ll get used to it.

  5. Deeps says:

    This is scary! I never realized these websites worked like this. I knew FB had a lousy privacy settings because of which till now I have been making sure my albums are visible to only my friends and family. But now after reading your post its a vicious web of sorts. Once the albums are uploaded FB can do anything with our folders and pictures! Its a serious threat to your safety isnt it? Gosh!

    • I guess FB figured that people are too hooked to social networking sites to care what it does with user-data. It’s scary indeed because FB is privy to way too personal info. One just has to tread wisely, I guess, and be careful about uploading stuff.

  6. Scribby says:

    Yeah I’ve known this,not the technical term b-targeting but that my clicks are being targeted and so on. But is there a way out? How can we stop it? And by the time it gets stopped or at least gets attention all we can do is click wisely and share ‘personal’ information wisely,that’s all we can do if we want to remain private,no?

  7. bb says:

    I did not notice but this is serious and freaky!

  8. meenamenon says:

    This post literally gave me creps!

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