As Tracking Technology Advances, Anonymous Does Not Mean Private Anymore

Businessman looking through binoculars

Businessman looking through binoculars

Researchers are harvesting a wealth of intimate detail from our cellphone data, uncovering the hidden patterns of our social lives, travels, risk of disease—even our political views. Source: WSJ.com

Does this scare you or fascinate you?

Most people travel the Internet today without much idea at all about how they are being tracked. They understand that Amazon uses their shopping and browsing behavior to suggest recommendations for other products. Netflix uses their rental history and ratings submissions to suggest other movies to watch. But what is the real scope and depth of online privacy?

It all seems pretty simple and harmless, in fact, quite useful. But, think of all the actions you take online and on your mobile phone. We’re talking about a tremendous amount of data, and even if it’s anonymous, it can all be used to unveil your actual identity online.

Anonymous & Identity Data: What’s the Difference?

Identity data includes specific items of detail such as your phone number, home address, birth date, e-mail address, etc. You usually input this information yourself in a profile on a social network, a newsletter signup, an application for a job, or some other online contact form.

Anonymous data includes more general details from your browsing history and location data. It’s called anonymous because no personal identifying information (as listed above) is attached to it. For example, apps that you have on your smart phone or tablet use location data to forecast traffic congestion, offer up weather forecasts, suggest restaurants, and more.

The problem is that anonymous data really isn’t so anonymous anymore. The trail of data you leave on the Web while shopping, browsing, interacting on social networks, i.e. your online identity, can easily be examined and traced to your real identity.

Facebook Tracking is Just One Example

When you go to any Facebook.com page, the company places cookies in your browser. If you sign up for an account, you get two types of cookies. These cookies record every time you visit another website that uses a Facebook Like button or other Facebook plugin. Unique characteristics that identify your computer are also recorded.

If you’re logged into your Facebook account, however, more personal details will be recorded, such as your name, e-mail address, friends’ names and other profile information.

Right now, Facebook uses this information, they say, to offer up relevant advertising and to improve plug-ins and security. The concern, however, is that Facebook and other companies that track data like this will be tempted to sell it to other businesses. (See the full story on Mashable, Facebook Reveals Its User-Tracking Secrets.)

Smart Phone Capabilities Beyond Your Imagination

Privacy concerns aren’t just about Internet tracking anymore. An article in the Wall Street Journal on The Really Smart Phone details how tracking mobile phone usage could be of great benefit and of great concern.

Experiments conducted through certain universities tracked volunteers—recording their movements, relationships, moods, health, calling habits and spending. Researchers then discovered patterns of human behavior that could:

  • Reveal political and religious affiliations
  • Detect flu symptoms before the person knows he is sick
  • Pinpoint influencers who could change a consumer’s mind
  • Predict a person’s future whereabouts with 93.6% accuracy

Am I blowing your mind?

Technology can be wonderful and amazing, but it can also be dangerous. And as technology advances, privacy controls need to advance too. Consumers need to be able to control their information better, and right now, that’s just not happening.

Social networks, like Facebook, and the constant evolution of mobile phones are terrific and amazing. They let us communicate freely and globally like never before.

The question is: How do consumers continue to use these items and trust that they and their information are safe?

How can we benefit from some of these really incredible advances and not have to put so much personal information at risk?

In 2009, MediaPost published a warning about anonymous data not being so anonymous or harmless, yet where are the privacy advances?

Do you have the answers? Do you have ideas? If so, start listing them here. Who knows? Maybe we can start the next privacy revolution.


About the Author

Ryan Gerardi
Creative, resourceful, and resilient B2B sales and marketing technologist who works with people and businesses on a variety of levels to help elevate their game, their brand, and their businesses.