My staff convinced me that using Gmail (a free service of Google) would reduce download times and make traveling and e-mailing quick and easy. I fought them at the time and switched, and it has been a pleasure. However, ads pop up with every e-mail I read. Although I have tried to train myself not to look at the right side of my screen, it is disconcerting to write the word "Dubai" in an e-mail and have things like "flights to Dubai" and "hotels in Dubai" pop up on my screen. It smacks of privacy violations and scares me.
When the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing last week on the privacy implications of online advertising, I took notice. Representatives of the Center for Democracy and Technology had strong concerns. The largest concern they raised was the data collection that takes place under the banner of "behavioral advertising." I had never heard of the term. Behavioral advertising is not just automatically generated by a key word in a written e-mail but is generated by the interests of the consumer over time. So, if I visit sites related to travel and weddings, then ads will be generated to suit my interests. To do that, the sites have to collect tons of information on my search habits.
The collection of this data is even more scary. According to the Center for Democracy and Technology, the process begins with the ad network striking a deal with an ISP that allows the network to receive the contents of someone's individual traffic profiles. They then create a record of that individual's online behavior and interests. Right now most of the "patterns" that the ad networks use the ISPs to track are mainly visits to websites. However, there is no law preventing these ISP's from selling data that they have stored along the way including e-mails, chats and downloads. Lend your computer to a friend, visitor or a teenager and you might not be too excited about the "profile" that you are now associated with.
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Although there are laws that support privacy, the laws have not kept pace with the technology of snooping. To enact laws that can keep pace with the data collectors, members of Congress need to be well educated, and that takes time most members of Congress don't have. The other problem is money. As the technology companies grow in power and influence, they learn to play the Washington game of contributions and lobbying. The little guy sitting on his home computer doesn't stand a chance. There have been suggestions that we already have laws on the books to prevent this violation of privacy via the Cable Communications Policy Act.
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Perhaps the Cable Communications Policy Act can protect consumers, but most consumers are not going to read the fine print. The only way to make sure people are aware of what is being collected about them and where the data is going to be sold is to print it clearly on the monthly bill and to list the kind of data they are "selling" to others.
One suggestion is to use the widely popular "do-not-call" type list that has allowed many American families to eat a peaceful dinner instead of being called by telemarketers. The same could happen with the Internet. As suggested at the hearing, there could be a "do-not-track list." I am sure that there would be an overwhelming response from consumers.
I am all for companies making money but not at the expense of personal privacy. Congress needs to act on this soon, and both presidential candidates need to addresses this alarming trend. Congress needs to hear from anyone who uses the Internet, and it needs to hear soon. Privacy is as American as apple pie, but soon there will be none if this high-tech data collection does not stop.
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