2016 Will Be Remembered as the Year When Data Privacy Was Killed

November 22, 2016     By : Elena Mesropyan

In vocal concerns over data privacy, the general public has already shaped a tradition of picking on usual suspects and condescending over constant tracking of everything possible and impossible. To be honest, those concerns are rarely exaggerated as the list of those suspects and under-the-sheets actions towards diluting personal data privacy are accelerating.

While industry standards and regulations tend to move towards greater ‘respect’ for personal privacy in response to increasing consumer disturbance over the issue, some companies, on the contrary, are accelerating their efforts in a more precise profiling and targeting of a user. Facebook has been one of the most contradictory examples, as the company dropped a bomb on the industry back in 2014 with the announcement that it will target ads based on the browsing histories of its users. Every page that a user visits, which has the “Like” button, sends data back to Facebook regardless of whether people ‘liked’ it or not. Given the scale of the user base, the scale of business presence and ever-expanding Facebook family apps, platform capabilities and acquired companies, the precision is about to get creepy.

Google is also an extremely complex topic when it comes to privacy. There is really nothing Google doesn’t know about a particular user. Still, apparently, there are no borders in how well can any company can get to know its customers. In August this year, for example, new research from Northeastern University’s professor Guevara Noubir and colleagues have demonstrated that Android apps can be manipulated to reach inside user’s mobile phone to track person’s whereabouts and traffic patterns, all without user’s knowledge or consent. “An app, in fact, does not need your GPS or Wi-Fi to track you,” said Noubir, the Lead Researcher behind the study.

But even that is not as meaningful as something happened behind curtains this summer when Google quietly dropped the ban on personally identifiable web tracking. As reported by ProPublica at the end of October, Google literally crossed out the lines in its privacy policy that promised to keep its two pots of data (Gmail’s and advertising networks’ DoubleClick, which Google acquired in 2007) separate by default. The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.

The practical result of the change, as explained on Slashdot, is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on the name and other information Google knows about the user. It also means that Google could now – if it wished to – build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

Google and Facebook were not random choices as examples. A recent study by Princeton University discovered that Google Analytics, a tool used to analyze Web traffic that integrates with ad-targeting apps, was embedded in nearly 70% of the sites. Along with Google, the leading trackers identified by the study were Twitter and Facebook.

Private data is at the cornerstone of the market power of mentioned companies, one of the most (if not the ultimate) valuable assets and important area of development and growth. As a result, players in bordering industries started pursuing their interest in stretching privacy borders to compete with data-rich market participants. Mobile operators/Internet providers are extremely close to contradictory private space invasion.

Verizon/AOL, for example, just at the end of last week outlined its plans to combine offline information, such as postal address, email address and device type, with AOL browser cookies, Apple and Google advertising IDs and Verizon’s proprietary unique identifier header. As reported by AdExchanger, Verizon’s header will be inserted into web traffic sent to Verizon-owned companies, including AOL, and certain authorized partners. The identifiers will be used to serve more personalized advertising, connect app usage with web browsing activity and identify and link users across devices. Verizon will pass what it knows about device usage patterns to AOL to power more targeted, personalized advertising.

Not to be biased against Verizon, but it is worth mentioning that AT&T is getting into hot water over its latest ‘spying’ scandal (aka Project Hemisphere) and the announcement at the end of October that AT&T Inc. and Time Warner Inc. (which owns CNN, HBO, TBS and TNT, and much more) have entered into a definitive agreement under which AT&T will acquire Time Warner in a stock-and-cash transaction valued at $108.7 billion, including Time Warner’s net debt.

As noted by Free Press, “This merger would create a media powerhouse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. AT&T would control mobile and wired Internet access, cable channels, movie franchises, a film studio and more.

“That means AT&T would control Internet access for hundreds of millions of people and the content they view, enabling it to prioritize its own offerings and use sneaky tricks to undermine Net Neutrality.”

But that’s not really the biggest issue – privacy is. Given that AT&T has experience in satisfying very particular requests from security agencies to find information on a particular person with regard to any case, an extension of data accumulation capabilities of AT&T means a whole new level of access to personal behavioral data.

“Where you go, what you watch, text and share, with whom you speak, all your internet searches and preferences, all gathered and ‘vertically integrated,’ sold to police and perhaps, in the future, to any number of AT&T’s corporate customers,” commented Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan of Democracy Now!

One of the hallmarks of the latest ‘updates’ in privacy policies is an attempt of companies to find a loophole to solve a long-standing problem – not just knowing what you do, but knowing who are you exactly. In other words, data tracking has been taken to a whole another level, where companies can connect one’s activity and cross-device behavior with a particular name and the real person. Previously, data management companies have been applying statistical analysis to make educated guesses about user identity, but with large technology companies taking it into own hands, there is really no secret anymore on who exactly does what.

If the extent of you not being in control over personally identifiable information is not scary yet, a really simple and paranoia-inducing tool, Clickclickclick.click has been just launched by VPRO, a Dutch media company, and Studio Moniker, an interactive design company, to show how one’s online behavior is constantly being measured by the browser. The website details person’s actions in real-time, from movements on the page to the other websites the person has visited, in the hope of creating awareness on privacy in a playful manner.

Elena Mesropyan
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Elena Mesropyan

Elena is a Market Research Analyst at LTP. She is a research professional with a background in social sciences and extensive experience in consumer behavior studies and marketing analytics. She is passionate about technologies enabling financial inclusion for underprivileged and vulnerable groups of the population around the world.
Elena Mesropyan
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