You are the product

Striking study of web beacons and other devices on popular websites… New York Times summarizes:

“Google showed up as the most conspicuous tracker on third-party sites. Google Analytics, a free product that allows online publishers to gather statistics about visitors to their sites, was used on 81 of the top 100 online sites. Cookies from the advertising company DoubleClick, which is owned by Google, were present on 70 of those sites. When combining trackers from those two services, Google had a presence on 92 of the top 100 sites. Others weren’t far behind. Cookies from Atlas, Microsoft’s DoubleClick rival, appeared on 60 sites, and trackers from two other analytics companies, Quantcast and Omniture, showed up on 54 sites… What is striking in the Berkeley students’ report is that in a sample of nearly 400,000 Web domains, Google’s presence remained high, at 88 percent, while those of other companies declined sharply… ‘Our data shows that even if you are not going to Google, if you are browsing the Web they are collecting data about you.’”

Using a cookie-blocker is not enough… any bit of third-party content on a page sends an HTTP request from your IP address to such a central service. Over a surfing session a variety of such requests build up a profile of the surfer at that IP address. This can then be compared with similar session profiles within that general IP block from other days. And, of course, if you sign into a Google service then your name is associated with your IP address.

An ad-blocker is necessary defense. Just as a Flash-blocker protects you from poor choices by site owners, an ad-blocker prevents websites from advertising your arrival to such central repositories of information.

Is Google actually tracking and analyzing the data they collect? No one knows. They’ve been closed and non-transparent about their privacy practices ever since the initial controversies over their perpetual cookie. Their longtime “special advisor” is a polarizing former Vice President of the US who spearheaded the V-chip effort and was involved in ECHELON and CARNIVORE. The lack of a response to reasonable questions may itself be an answer.

The business model is to sell your exquisitely-qualified attention to advertisers. You are the product. The “open web” is used as a massive profiling tool. You are the product. The process is opaque, closed, proprietary. You are the product.

Many people initially deride their own personal privacy — “privacy is an illusion” and all that. Many also think they would never be mugged, and so flash wallets or iPhones on subways and deserted streets. Habits can change very quickly, once your own personal experience changes.

When you visit most sites, Google Knows. That’s too much power to place in such an opaque organization. To the degree you do not minimize your own exposure to such data collection, you are the product.