Thoughts about a Letter to the Editor of USA Today
How priorities get skewed by misinformation about “online tracking”
We’ve always thought that people allow themselves to be concerned with the insignificant, while disregarding the important. I recently read a letter to the editor in USA Today (USA Today – January 31, 2012). I don’t know what to say about this man’s comments, except to say I think his comments typify how most people feel about so-called “online tracking”.
Here’s a man who was looking at furniture online and finds it unnerving that he would see ads for furniture appear during his browsing sessions during the next week.
There’s something drastically wrong here when a man writes about being tracked on the Internet – and then has a Facebook account where he includes his real name, city, state, as well as the name of his high school and college (in case a former classmate wants to say hi) and then publishes his full name and city and state in USA Today where millions can see it. If he had a last name like Smith or Jones — maybe I could understand it – but this man’s last name is not common at all. If you want to see his last name read the letter he submitted to USA Today.
So here’s a man who’s really upset that he saw furniture ads for a week after he looked at furniture ads. Here’s a man who makes a totally inane comparison between a man looking for furniture online and “someone following” him in a shopping mall and recording what stores he visited and what he bought. We can tell you for sure that no human being tracks people on the Internet. Software programs track the sites you visit and show you advertisements that are relevant to your interests. There is no stealthy person assigned to follow you around the Internet. The ad networks don’t care if your name is Habbatooie or Smith or Jones. They care about what you like and they might even care about your general geographic location. Why? Because they want to show you ads you are more likely to click on so, a.) the advertiser gets more customers, and b.) the ad network gets more results for their clients.
And anyone who is seriously concerned about privacy wouldn’t have a Facebook account. Facebook’s been in more hot water over privacy concerns than Google has. Anyone who is more concerned about furniture ads than publishing his real name and city and state on the Internet (on Facebook) and in USA Today, doesn’t have a clue about privacy or how ad networks online work – or even how he is being “tracked” on the Internet. He’s wise not to put his email address on his Facebook account – but I think somehow the reason he doesn’t put it on isn’t because of spam.
This man is not the only one. There are millions like him who have a problem with being tracked by advertising networks, yet see no problem with Facebook or posting their real name, city and state in a major U.S. newspaper. There are millions like him who worry about things like online ad tracking and don’t worry the important things. What if this man’s password to his Facebook account was 12345 or password? It may well be. There are millions of people who get distracted by bloggers and privacy zealots who rage against online tracking by ad networks and gain a lot of attention and a lot of traffic to their blogs and Web sites. And they’re hypocrites. Many of these so-called “privacy bloggers” or as I call them, privacy zealots, try to stir up fear in order to drive traffic to their Web sites and earn money from —- ads? Ads displayed by advertising networks? Oh my.
The Web is full of dangers and pitfalls, to be sure. But advertising networks who track the pages you visit in order to show you advertisements which may be somewhat relevant to you, aren’t dangers to your privacy. If privacy zealots were really out to help you – they’d be writing about the real dangers that all of us face on the Web every day – like password-stealing Trojans, botnets, phishing emails, phishing Web sites, Rogue security programs that steal your money, malware, scams and all the other real dangers. But they don’t. They hammer away at “trackers” (software programs that don’t give a darn if your name is Mingus or Smith or Jones or Relinsky) who collect data about the things you’re interested in, and then, (Oh My!) show you ads for products and services in which you may have an interest. It’s absurd.
Maybe you won’t find the following letter to the editor of USA Today as contradictory as I did, but maybe you will. I found it telling. It shows how peoples’ ideas of internet dangers can be skewed by the misinformation being propagated on the Internet, written by those who either don’t understand what they’re writing about or who are hypocrites and write about online tracking to drive online traffic to their web sites or blogs in order to earn revenue from ads… yes ads which “track you”.
This man publishes his full name and city (Allen Park is not a very large city) in USA Today – and he’s worried about furniture ads?
Here, in its entirety, is the letter to the editor which appeared in USA Today on January 31, 2012:
“I have had multiple experiences with being tracked on the Internet. Once, for instance, I was shopping for furniture, and for the next week other websites I visited showed advertisements for furniture. Imagine if some local shopping mall had someone following me recording what stores I visited and what I bought, so that I could receive “relevant” ads by mail or phone. That would be quite unnerving, even scary (“Privacy concerns up in air in drive for ads”).
But I always remind myself of what Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems said back in 1999: “You have zero privacy. … Get over it.”
My Facebook account has only my name, birth year (not the correct day), city, state, high school and college, the last two in case a former classmate wants to say hi. I would never put my address, phone, real birthday or e-mail on any such site. But younger people seem oblivious to the consequences.
Once the information is posted online, it often is there forever, even after you delete the info and close the account. Many websites are getting interconnected and there is little we can do about it, except be very cautious about what info we put out there for all to see.
Bob Rejefski; Allen Park, Mich
Read the letter online at