The Invisible Web and Other Effronteries

spicer web with water

I’m back to consumption today with a few separate but related thoughts.

I suppose I should have known. I recently learned from an article (I cannot locate now) that almost every time I went to a web page my actions were tracked by a number of snooping programs run by companies gathering information on my browsing habits. Being curious and a bit peeved about this, I installed a small program, Ghostery, that blocks these snoopers and records them for my perusal. Ghostery says this about itself:

Ghostery is your window into the invisible web - tags, web bugs, pixels and beacons that are included on web pages to get an idea of your online behavior. Ghostery tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity.

After showing you who's tracking you, Ghostery also gives you a chance to learn more about each company it identifies. How they describe themselves, a link to their privacy policies, and a sampling of pages where we've found them are just a click away.

There are more than 500 companies that are doing this. Ghostery provides information on each one. I found seven separate firms tracking my interactions with the NYTimes online. (No one was tracking the Ghostery site.) Some were identified as belonging to the big players: Facebook, Microsoft, and Google (2). Webtrends seems typical of what I found. Ghostery provides this data about them.

WebTrends operates as a Web analytics and customer intelligence company. They offer search engine marketing, visitor intelligence, and analytics solutions. By measuring online activities, they enable companies to understand their customers, drive engagement, and enhance marketing and brand awareness. Webtrends Visitor Data Mart is a tool that combines a person's online behavior with offline customer data, such as CRM or demographics to build insight into a person over time. This data can be used to improve segmentation and audience targeting. WebTrends is a business unit of NetIQ.

Website: http://www.webtrends.com/

Privacy and Data Collection Information Privacy Policy: http://www.webtrends.com/Ab...

Data Collected: ?Anonymous (browser type, exit pages, ISP, operating system, page views, referring URLs, time/date), Pseudonymous (IP address), PII (will link voluntarily provided registration and profile data to automatically collected anonymous data)

Data Sharing: ?Anonymous and aggregate data are shared with third parties. PII and Pseudonymous data are shared with third party service providers. Data Retention: ?Undisclosed

I have very mixed feeling about this. In some ways, this kind of tracking is not much different from the tracking I allow every time I use a store card at the supermarket. The data from my purchase gets recorded, but it has no future connection to my buying habits other than perhaps shelving more of the stuff I usually buy. It has no direct influence of how I shop.

But another effort is under foot to change this and convert your shopping habits, not what you buy, but how you navigate through the aisles of a supermarket. The National Science Foundation published a story (August 1, 2011) on their public website, Science Nation, about a team that is collecting data abut shopper habits using a cameras on the ceiling and software to analyze the patterns they observe.

Next time you go to a store, take a minute to look at all the things that are trying to grab your attention. With so many products available and so many stores and websites, how do you decide what to buy and where to shop? Whether it's convenience, good service or finding the best deals, store owners want to know what attracts you to their stores, and what it takes to keep you coming back. Turns out, there's a science to all this.

The idea is to show retailers and manufacturers the best areas in the store to place products, and how to create a comfortable place for people to shop. "By providing the data to retailers and manufacturers," says Sharma, "they can customize and design the stores and the shelves and the products to match the shoppers' interest."

Is this and the snooping on the Internet designed to enhance consumer sovereignty or squelch it? If your own habits are being monitored and used to manipulate your behavior, are you really operating out of authentic choice? Does it lead to supporting our “natural” habits (if such habits do actually exist) or controlling them by subtly influencing our behavior. I have no doubt that all of this is designed to produce more consumption. Sustainability demands less, not more.

The Globe carried a short article today about obtaining rental car discounts if you are willing to drive a car displaying ads. Not the same kind of surveillance, but designed to the same end: more consumption. As I have asked before, “Is there no place on Earth without ads?”

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