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Do Not Track: The great ad-tracking debate

We look at both sides of the story

To track or not to track: Two editors go toe-to-toe in the debate over web advertisers' right to track online browsing behaviour.

I'm not paranoid - the threat is real
New methods of data harvesting, coupled with new online advertising techniques, push the privacy envelope way too far. At the heart of these privacy-busting trends is advertisers' desire to track your interests on the web and display what are called behaviour-based ads.

Advertisers have gone way beyond cookies, and are collecting the 'public' data we post on social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn to target ads more effectively. But might your Facebook status ever be used by a credit agency, health-care provider, or future employer to determine if you are a good bet?

Advertising firms bristle at the notion that your credit card issuer could jack up interest rates based on a tweet in which you announce that you just got laid off. But privacy experts say that this scenario may become a reality in coming years.

As a result of online tracking, connections between your offline and online worlds can be made through an email address kept on record by a company that you do business with. That email address could create a link to a composite profile made up of your online activities at social networks and other sites. By cross-referencing that email address, advertisers can show you banner ads tailored to your spending habits, to your health problems, and to your political views expressed on Twitter.

The rise of online tracking and data harvesting has created cunningly effective advertising campaigns customised to a web surfer's household income, interests, and online activity. The Center for Digital Democracy's Jeffrey Chester tells me he believes that this type of advertising fosters predatory ads. Examples might include dubious health cures or high-interest loans for HDTVs.

The examples above clearly show that online tracking, unlike other forms of online advertising, can be used to identify people surfing online. Patrick says sites "don't store any personally identifiable information". He misses the point. Individual sites (that you haven't registered with) don't store personal identifiable information, but online advertisers that track you do. Sometimes they may have your name. Other times they may know every single thing about you (down to your household income, address, political slant, sports you like, and so on) but just not your name. What's the difference?

Lastly, for the determined, such as a government, scammer, or advertiser, it's easy to extrapolate a name from the anonymous data collected online. It's been done many times before.

NEXT PAGE: Mythbusting

  1. We look at both sides of the story
  2. More on why not tracking is not a big deal
  3. Tom Spring tell us why tracking is bad
  4. I'm not paranoid - the threat is real
  5. Mythbusting

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