Just as I predicted in How They Scored:
Twitter is in advanced talks with Microsoft and Google separately about striking data-mining deals, in which the companies would license a full feed from the microblogging service that could then be integrated into the results of their competing search engines.
Imagine the familiar movie scenario where a detective is desperate to track and find a suspect, or where a detective is hired by a suspicious spouse to trail their errant husband or wife. Or an alternate scenario from the Cold War, where the secret police manipulate ordinary citizens to inform on one another (cf. the film The Lives of Others, pictured at left). Or the horrible situation of a controlling husband who wants to know where his wife is at every minute of the day. In those situations, one person wants to track another; the person who is tracked would rather not be tracked and sometimes would do anything to avoid it.
Now consider yourself, or any ordinary bourgeois, and how much you are tracked on a daily (and sometimes minute-to-minute) basis. Credit card companies and credit reporting firms register every purchase you make with something other than cash. Airlines, grocery stores and other businesses with rewards programs know where you’ve traveled and what you’ve bought. The phone company knows, within a few hundred feet, where you made that cell phone call from, and if you have GPS enabled, they know within a few meters.
And so on. Any modern consumer knows all this, so there’s no need to go into it at length — though the Wired story Gone Forever: What does it take to really disappear? is somewhat of an eyeopener, in that it communicates the ease with which some modern-day gumshoes, such as private detectives working for bail bondsmen or insurance companies, can locate you through the databases compiled by airlines, Amazon, Visa and others.
You may or may not feel comfortable with all that tracking and archiving of data about you, but there’s not much you can do about it. After all, you “agreed” to it when you signed up for whatever credit card, rewards program, cell phone, etc. etc. you use. Just check your “End User License Agreement.”
If this makes you feel just a little bit creeped out, then I would ask you: Why do you have a Facebook page? Why are you on Twitter? Why do you post your name, address, preferences and picture online on any number of sites, from Amazon to Yelp? In my novel How They Scored, I put it this way: Why would you even need an East German-style secret police these days when people are putting so much effort into reporting on themselves, compiling their own dossiers? (We call them online “profiles.”)
There’s no need to be needlessly paranoid about this. No one (unless he or she is actively stalking you) has hired a private detective to compile a report on the details of your quotidian doings. But they could. Because your life’s an open book.
I’m aware of all this and I still tweet what I’m doing, what I just ate, where I am. I still blog about books I read or music I listened to (facts which, if they were in the records of the public library, would require a court order for anyone to access, but I give them away for free). I still have my picture online in a dozen places, along with the neighborhood I live in, and so on.
But I still rebel in small ways. For example, I don’t have a Safeway card, but I still take partial advantage of their program. How? I thought to myself, probably most people in the neighborhood of this store have Safeway cards. All I have to do is type in the local telephone exchange and four random numbers. For the Safeway on 29th and Mission, in my neighborhood of San Francisco, that’s 415-824-xxxx. And it almost always works. I get my TV dinners 4 for $10 and whoever actually owns the account gets some points toward the purchase of … whatever Safeway gives. That’s my big protest.
This story on wired.com, about the difficulty of losing your identity and taking up another, is something I wrote about in How They Scored.
The characters are looking at the business possibilities of a proposed business named Dreedle, which would compile vast databases of consumer behavior; the narrator reflects on how such databases would make it difficult to disappear, as you used to be able to in the old days.
There were plenty of things about me I didn’t want rolled up into some online repository. One or two of these things I might confide to a lover — that I liked to watch a certain kind of porn, for example (though I wasn’t sure Meeghan was ready to know that). Another, less embarrassing detail I might write about on a blog — my appreciation of the Giants infielders, say, or my enthusiasm for Russian composers. Other things I wouldn’t mind mentioning in a phone call to my mother. But put them all together, combined with the records of everything I buy, books I read, music I listen to — no. It’s already creepy enough to see my house from space on Google Maps, to see on Amazon that people who live in my zip code read scads of self-help books…
And then there’s the American fantasy of disappearing. … I might merely want to start over. I love the idea that you can move to a big city or a small town and get lost. Isn’t that what hundreds of people did after 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? — claimed that all their papers were lost, whether or not it was true. Got new ID with a new name, moved to another state, faded into the woodwork.
You can still do that in America — barely. But with Dreedle, no way. That dead guy whose ID you stole probably liked completely different music, wore completely different clothes, had totally different jobs. Once I started buying Shostakovich CDs and had them delivered to a zip code the dead guy never lived in, a red flag would go up. A complete change in shopping habits combined with a change in address equals the probability of identity theft. That’s what it would be called. Not “starting over.”
This is just the kind of thing I wrote about in my book:
Microsoft ponders offline profiling of Web users
By John Letzing, MarketWatch
Last update: 7:02 p.m. EST Jan. 23, 2008
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) — Microsoft Corp. is developing a method of using personal data such as credit-card information to target Internet users with advertising once they connect to the Web, according to a patent application filed by the company.
In an application disclosed earlier this month, a Microsoft team including Chairman Bill Gates presents a method of collecting information about users’ “cell phones, geolocation systems, credit-card information” and other data sources to select and display “targeted advertising.”
The technology described in the patent application touches on a delicate issue for Microsoft and other online companies such as Google Inc.
Microsoft and its rivals have all sought to gather increasing amounts of personal information about Internet users to deliver advertisements more likely to draw attention. That’s because the companies generally earn revenue only when a user clicks on an ad.
Microsoft director of privacy strategy Brendon Lynch said patent applications don’t necessarily indicate product plans for the company. But if Microsoft does develop a product based on the new patent application, Lynch said it “will first be reviewed against our privacy standards to ensure that privacy is protected.”
Google is currently facing questions in Europe about its own collection of user data.
Bill Gates is listed as an inventor on the patent application, alongside members of various Microsoft research units.
The European Parliament held a public seminar Monday to discuss the privacy implications of technology used by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others.
“We put great effort into building privacy protections into our products and systems,” Google privacy counsel Peter Fleischer wrote in a blog post related to the seminar.
In addition, the European Commission is considering the approval of Google’s acquisition of online-advertising firm DoubleClick, a move that many say would unfairly expand Google’s store of user data.
In Microsoft’s patent application, the company describes a technology that can first better align search results with a users’ offline behavior. Then, according to the application, “an advertising component employs the user profile in connection with the delivery of an advertisement.”
Offline behavior can include credit-card information such as types of purchases and “payment history,” according to the application.
Data relayed by cell-phone towers can also be tapped to locate users, and “tailor search and advertising during online experiences so as to better interpret queries to search engines, to better target advertisements,” the application said.
In addition to cell-phone and credit-card use, other offline behavior that can be monitored includes TV-watching habits, the patent forms say.
“If the offline behavior indicates the user was watching a college football game … if the user goes online during or just after such activity, then an inference could be made that the user is interested in seeing more information about the game as well as being receptive to advertisements selling college-team memorabilia,” according to the application.
Gates is listed as an inventor on the patent application, alongside members of various Microsoft research units.
It increasingly has become common for Gates to be listed as an inventor on Microsoft’s patent applications, according to public filings. Gates, who co-founded the company in 1975, is expected to step back from his day-to-day role at Microsoft in July to focus more on philanthropy.
In early November, Facebook’s 23-year-old C.E.O., Mark Zuckerberg, rolled out an advertising program called Beacon. It would track users onto the sites of Facebook’s commercial partners — Coca-Cola, the N.B.A., The New York Times and Verizon, among others — and keep their friends posted about what they were doing and buying there.
Did it ever. A Massachusetts man bought a diamond ring for Christmas for his wife from overstock.com and saw his discounted purchase announced to 720 people in his online network. What if it hadn’t been for his wife? What if he had been buying acne cream? Pornography? A toupee? You could go on. Researchers at Computer Associates, an information-technology firm, discovered that Beacon was more invasive than announced. MoveOn.org started a petition movement against Beacon that rallied 75,000 Facebook subscribers. …
The Beacon fiasco gives a good outline of what future conflicts over the Internet will look like. Whether a system is opt-in or opt-out has an enormous influence on how people use it. He who controls the “default option” — the way a program runs if you don’t modify it — writes the rules. Online, it can be tempting to dodge the need to get assent for things that used to require it. This temptation is particularly strong in matters of privacy. For instance, the “default option” of the pre-Internet age was that it was wrong to read others’ mail. But Google now skims the letters of its Gmail subscribers, in hopes of better targeting them with ads, and the N.S.A. looks for terrorists not only in the traditional manner — getting warrants for individual wiretaps — but also by mining large telecommunications databases.
So it is with Facebook’s Beacon. We used to live in a world where if someone secretly followed you from store to store, recording your purchases, it would be considered impolite and even weird. Today, such an option can be redefined as “default” behavior.