The recent revelations regarding the NSA’s collection of the personal information and the digital activities of millions of people across the world have attracted immense attention and public concern. But there are equally troubling and equally opaque systems run by advertising, marketing, and data-mining firms that are far less known. Using techniques ranging from supermarket loyalty cards to targeted advertising on Facebook, private companies systematically collect very personal information, from who you are, to what you do, to what you buy. Data about your online and offline behavior are combined, analyzed, and sold to marketers, corporations, governments, and even criminals. The scope of this collection, aggregation, and brokering of information is similar to, if not larger than, that of the NSA, yet it is almost entirely unregulated and many of the activities of data-mining and digital marketing firms are not publicly known at all.
Here I will discuss two things: the involuntary, or passive, collecting of data by private corporations; and the voluntary, or active, collection and aggregation of their own personal data by individuals. While I think it is the former that we should be more concerned with, the latter poses the question of whether it is possible for us to take full advantage of social media without playing into larger corporate interests.
The industry of collecting, aggregating, and brokering personal data is known as “database marketing.” The second-largest company in this field, Acxiom, has 23,000 computer servers that process more than 50 trillion data transactions per year, according to The New York Times.1 It claims to have records on hundreds of millions of Americans, including 1.1 billion browser cookies (small pieces of data sent from a website, used to track the user’s activity), 200 million mobile profiles, and an average of 1,500 pieces of data per consumer. These data include information gleaned from publicly available records like home valuation and vehicle ownership, information about online behavior tracked through cookies, browser advertising, and the like, data from customer surveys, and “offline” buying behavior. The CEO, Scott Howe, says, “Our digital reach will soon approach nearly every Internet user in the US.”2
Visiting virtually any website places a digital cookie, or small text file, on your computer. “First-party” cookies are placed by the site itself, such as Gmail saving your password so that you don’t have to log in every time you visit the site. “Third-party cookies” persist across sites, tracking what sites you visit, in what order. For those who have logged in, Google Chrome and Firefox sync this browsing history across devices, combining what you do on your iPad with your iPhone with your laptop. This is used to deliver advertising.
For example, a few nights ago I was browsing LLBean.com for winter boots on my iPhone. A few days later, LLBean.com ads showed up on a…
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