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Stupid Media Watch: The Sky is Falling at USA Today

8/9/11

By Ken Magill

And the latest piece of anti-marketing alarmist drivel comes to us courtesy of America’s McPaper, USA Today.

“Web tracking has become a privacy time bomb,” said the headline of the piece by Byron Acohido.

No need to guess where Acohido comes down on Web tracking for advertising purposes. The 1,600-word piece was rife with alarmist theoretical warnings while, of course, failing to give a single example of actual harm.

“The coolest free stuff on the Internet actually comes at a notable price: your privacy,” began the piece.

“For more than a decade, tracking systems have been taking note of where you go and what you search for on the Web — without your permission. And today many of the personal details you voluntarily divulge on popular websites and social networks are being similarly tracked and analyzed,” it continued.

Message to Acohido: When someone divulges “personal” information on a social network—no matter how sensitive—it is no longer personal. It’s public.

In any case, Acohido has barely warmed up.

“The purpose for all of this online snooping is singular: Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, Facebook and others are intent on delivering more relevant online ads to each and every one of us — and bagging that advertising money.”

Notice the terms “snooping” and “bagging.” They are used intentionally to conjure an image of nefarious activity with a crass goal.

Moreover, the phrase “intent on delivering more relevant online ads to each and every one of us” is intended to give the impression that data aggregators are focused—check that: snooping—and compiling dossiers on individuals.

Then after implying that companies are building creepy individual dossiers on people, Acohido delivers the obligatory bullshit-on-stilts theoretical-harm claim in the next two paragraphs.

“Trouble is, the tracking data culled from your Internet searches and surfing can get commingled with the information you disclose at websites for shopping, travel, health or jobs. And it's now possible to toss into this mix many of the personal disclosures you make on popular social networks, along with the preferences you may express via all those nifty Web applications that trigger cool services on your mobile devices.

“As digital shadowing escalates, so too have concerns about the erosion of traditional notions of privacy. Privacy advocates have long fretted that health companies, insurers, lenders, employers, lawyers, regulators and law enforcement could begin to acquire detailed profiles derived from tracking data to use unfairly against people. Indeed, new research shows that as tracking technologies advance, and as more participants join the burgeoning tracking industry, the opportunities for privacy invasion are rising.”

It apparently doesn’t occur to Acohido that abuse of online profiles can be legislated against without killing an industry, and it’s not even clear such legislation is necessary.

Still not finished with theoretical-harm idiocy, Acohido then cites a study that found that 8 percent of Android app providers took the “unusual step of asking users' permission to access the handset's International Mobile Equipment Identity number, the unique code assigned to each cellphone” and some forwarded the code to an ad network.

We then get to a quote that illustrates how ridiculous the premise of Acohido’s entire piece is:

"The fact that an ad network is getting your IMEI [unique code] means they can know how long you've used your phone and which mobile apps you use most often," Daswani [chief technology officer of Dasient, the company that did the study] says. "The full implications of this aren't clear, but with privacy you've got to be careful."

Uh oh. Better stop playing Angry Birds. If an auto insurer learns an applicant shoots cartoon birds out of a cartoon slingshot to kill cartoon pigs they might require an anger-management class before they issue coverage.

Then we get the obligatory dose of positive coverage of “do not track” without even a hint of doubt as to whether the questionable proposal can work.

“The technology is simple and can be quickly added to any Web browser. Users would then be able to check a box configuring their browser to automatically notify every webpage they visit not to track them,” wrote Acohido.

Not quite.

According to Internet expert John Levine—frequent speaker to trade groups on Internet-related topics, expert witness, and author of Internet for Dummies, among other things—a do-not-track list isn’t remotely practical.

“Computers don’t have phone numbers so there’s no easy way to identify people,” he said in an interview I conducted with him in February. “The other thing is you can’t tell if there’s a violation. If someone makes a sales call on my home phone I know it’s a DNC [do-not-call] violation. If somebody’s tracking me, how would I ever know?”

To provide the balance for which consumer reporters are so well-known when it comes to marketing, Acohido’s piece contained a grand total of one quote from someone defending online advertising:

“Attorney Christopher Wolf, a privacy expert at law firm Hogan Lovells, counters that a Do Not Track law ‘may lead to the Internet economy — one of the few economic bright spots — being shackled.’”

No kidding. Remember ad banners before behavioral targeting? They didn’t work.

The article ended with the kicker quote: "Part of the problem is that Google collects and stores tremendous amounts of data about its users," [John] Simpson [of advocacy group Consumer Watchdog] says. "The only assurance we have about what Google's intentions are boils down to 'Trust us.'"

Nonsense. Data aggregators such as Google have every financial incentive to do no harm. And yet Simpson is allowed to make this claim not only unchallenged, but in the weightiest quote of the story.

As I’ve stated multiple times in this column: Behaviorally targeted online advertising is the engine driving the most mutually beneficial, voluntary, mass value-for-value transaction in the history of the human race.

And some spoiled-brat imbeciles want to kill it to protect people from a non-threat they can’t even describe.

 

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