by Scott Allan Morrison
February 08, 2016
Morrison was a tech correspondent for the Financial
Times and Dow Jones Newswires, as well as a contributor
to The Wall Street Journal. His first novel, Terms of
Use, was released January 01.
Google, and the other Internet
titans have ever more sophisticated and intrusive methods of mining
your data, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.
The success of the consumer Internet can be attributed to a simple
We've been encouraged to search the Web,
share our lives with friends, and take advantage of all sorts of
other free services. In exchange, the Internet titans that provide
these services, as well as hundreds of other lesser-known firms,
have meticulously tracked our every move in order to bombard us with
targeted advertising. Now, this grand bargain is being tested by new
attitudes and technologies.
Consumers who were not long ago blithely dismissive of privacy
issues are increasingly feeling that they've lost control over their
Meanwhile, Internet companies, adtech
firms, and data brokers continue to roll out new technologies to
build ever more granular profiles of hundreds of millions, if not
billions, of consumers.
And with next generation of artificial
intelligence poised to exploit our data in ways we can't even
imagine, the simple terms of the old agreement seem woefully
In the early days of the Internet, we were led to believe that all
this data would deliver us to a state of information nirvana. We
were going to get new tools and better communications, access to all
the information we could possibly need, and ads we actually wanted
Who could possibly argue with that?
For a while, the predictions seemed to be coming true. But then
privacy goalposts were (repeatedly) moved, companies were caught
(accidentally) snooping on us, and hackers showed us just how easy
it is to steal our personal information.
Advertisers weren't thrilled either,
particularly when we adopted mobile phones and tablets. That's
because the cookies that track us on our computers don't work very
well on mobile devices. And with our online activity split among our
various devices, each of us suddenly appeared to be two or three
This wasn't a bad thing for consumers, because mobile phones emit
data that enable companies to learn new things about us, such as
where we go, who we meet, places we shop, and other habits that help
them recognize and then predict our long-term patterns.
But now, new cross-device technologies are enabling the advertising
industry to combine all our information streams into a single
comprehensive profile by linking each of us to our desktop, mobile
phone, and iPad.
Throw in wearable devices like a Fitbit,
connected TVs, and the Internet of Things, and the concept of
cross-device tracking expands to potentially include anything that
gives off a signal.
The ad industry is drooling over this technology because it can
follow and target us as we move through our daily routines, whether
we are searching on our desktop, surfing on our iPad, or out on the
town with our phone in hand.
There are two methods to track people across devices. The more
precise technique is deterministic tracking, which links devices to
a single user when that person logs into the same site from a
desktop computer, phone, and tablet.
This is the approach used by Internet
...all of which have enormous user bases
that log into their mobile and desktop properties.
just about everything we do, including the content we provide, who
we communicate with, what we look at on its pages, as well as
information about us that our friends provide.
Facebook saves payment information,
details about the devices we use, location info, and connection
The social network also knows when we
visit third-party sites that use its services (such as the Like
button, Facebook Log In, or the company's measurement and
It also collects information about us
from its partners.
Most of the tech giants have similar policies and they all emphasize
that they do not share personally identifiable information with
Facebook, for example, uses
our data to deliver ads within its walled garden but says it
does not let outsiders export our information.
says it only shares aggregated sets of anonymized
Little-known companies - primarily
advertising networks and adtech firms like Tapad and Drawbridge -
are also watching us.
We will never log into their websites,
so they use probabilistic tracking techniques to link us to our
devices. They start by embedding digital tags or pixels into the
millions of websites we visit so they can identify our devices,
monitor our browsing habits, look for time-based patterns, as well
as other metrics.
By churning massive amounts of this data
through statistical models, tracking companies can discern patterns
and make predictions about who is using which device. Proponents
claim they are accurate more than 90 percent of the time, but
none of this is visible to us and is thus very difficult to
In recent comments to the Federal Trade Commission, the Center for
Democracy and Technology illustrated just how invasive cross-device
tracking technology could be.
Suppose a user searched for sexually
transmitted disease (STD) symptoms on her personal computer,
used a phone to look up directions to a Planned Parenthood clinic,
visited a pharmacy, and then returned home.
With this kind of cross-device tracking,
it would be easy to infer that the user was treated for an STD.
That's creepy enough, but consider this:
by using the GPS or Wi-Fi information
generated by the patient's mobile phone, it would not be
difficult to discover her address. And by merging her online
profile with offline information from a third-party data broker,
it would be fairly simple to identify the patient.
So, should we be concerned that
companies use cross-device tracking to compile more comprehensive
profiles of us?
Let us count the reasons:
Your data could be hacked:
Privacy Rights Clearinghouse
reports that in 2015 alone, hackers gained access to the
4.5 million patients at
UCLA Health System
37 million clients of
online cheating website Ashley Madison
15 million Experian
80 million Anthem
more than 21 million
individuals in the federal Office of Personnel
Management's security clearance database
And these were just the
headliners that garnered media attention.
No site or network is entirely
safe, and numerous researchers have already demonstrated how
incredibly easy it is to "reidentify" or "deanonymize"
individuals hidden in anonymized data.
Your profile could be sold:
In fact, it typically is, in
anonymized fashion. That's the whole point.
But in many cases, Internet
companies' privacy policies also make it clear our profiles
are assets to be bought and sold should the company change
This was the case when Verizon
bought AOL and merged their advertising efforts, creating
much more detailed profiles of their combined user base.
Yahoo might be next should it
decide to spin off its Internet properties.
Your data could be used in ways you did
Google, Facebook, and other
companies create customized Web experiences based on our
interests, behavior, and even our social circles.
On one level, this makes perfect
sense because none of us want to scroll through reams of
irrelevant search results, news stories, or social media
But researchers have
demonstrated that our online profiles also have real-world
consequences, including the prices we pay for products, the
amount of credit extended to us, and even the job offers we
Our data is already used to build and
test advanced analytics models for new services and features. There
is much more to come.
The Googles and the Facebooks of the
Internet boast that newly emerging artificial intelligence will
enable them to analyze greater amounts of our data to discern new
behavioral patterns and to predict what we will think and want
before we actually think and want it.
These companies have only begun to
scratch the surface of what is possible with our data. We are being
profiled in incredible and increasingly detailed ways, and our data
may be exploited for purposes we cannot yet possibly understand.
The old bargain - 'free' Internet
services in exchange for targeted advertising - is rapidly become a
quaint relic of the past.
And with no sense of how, when, or why
our data might be used in the future, it is not clear what might
take its place.