These boots are made for… following me? – by “Cynthia W”

The gray suede boots that I drooled over last week are following me, chasing me around the internet as fast as I can click. During my morning news-perusing, the coveted shoes swirl around the top of the stories I’m reading, taunting me, “buy us!!” Conveniently, accompanying the frenzied boots is an enthusiastically-blinking link to, where I originally admired and then abandoned them. I felt ever-so-slightly creeped out by this. How does the banner ad know who I am? And why are the gray suede boots following me?

A cursory Googling revealed that Zappos is one of the many clients of Criteo, an award-winning advertising company which specializes in behavioral retargeting following people with a product until their last ounce of willpower dissipates. As it turns out, I’m not the only one who has been followed across the net by a vengeful piece of merchandise. This blogger was chased by a pair of shorts, and this one by some brown loafers.

What it comes down to is that I WANT THOSE BOOTS. Criteo knows as well as I do that the more times I see them, the more tempted I am… and the more likely I will be to buy them. Is it a great advertising strategy? Of course! But is it totally weird? Perhaps.

As it turns out, Criteo collects nothing but browsing behavior on their clients’ websites, storing a simple cookie. From Criteo’s FAQs:

What does Criteo know about me through the ads they serve?

We do not know who you are. We do not know your name. We do not know where you live, where you work, your gender, your age, your email address or any other personally identifiable information about you. We do not collect any information from the publisher website on which you may have seen our ads. We do not store your IP address. We do know that the Internet Browser you are using has visited one of our partner sites (probably an online retailer) in the last 30 days, and we have seen which products you were interested in on that site.

Here are some screenshots from the Take a Tour section of Criteo’s website:

Criteo basically keeps track of which items a user visits on their clients’ websites. Then, when a user fails to be “converted”— and approximately 98% of users are not converted on any given visit— Criteo displays those same browsed items through dynamic personalized ads across a vast array of websites. Images of the viewed items float around Criteo’s banner ads until the user finally caves, or becomes so frustrated that he or she takes the time to go to Criteo’s website and opt out.

Companies like Criteo are well within the limits of what is technically acceptable in terms of privacy. They store simple cookies, which users can block by changing their browser settings, and users can choose to opt out on Criteo’s website. These behavior-targeting companies are certainly less egregious than companies like Facebook and Google, which store much more than a simple tracking cookie, similar to the ones which are stored at almost any other website. But the visceral reaction that I and other bloggers have had to Criteo’s ads comes from the age-old adage that ignorance is bliss. I, like millions of other web users, like to pretend that I’m not being tracked and recorded with every virtual footstep that I take. Seeing my browsing history displayed across a banner ad on a totally unrelated website shatters the illusion of privacy. What I’m trying to say is: I don’t like being reminded of what they know about me and my behavior. I’d like to believe that the only one watching me shop for the gray suede boots was me.

Facebook v. Gmail: What they know about you and whom they’re telling – by “Nicki C”

It’s now common knowledge that Facebook has been less than perfect in terms of protecting its users’ privacy. But do people really know how unprotected they are? Do you? A comparison with Gmail’s privacy policy reveals stark differences and illustrates how a site with similar functionality can respect users’ privacy.

While Gmail and Facebook obviously don’t share exactly the same purpose (as Facebook is primarily a social networking tool and Gmail is primarily an email provider), there is, in fact, much overlap. Facebook has private message exchanges, Gmail has contact lists and Google Buzz, and both have an online chat function and current status update capabilities. Thus it is both useful and meaningful to compare the privacy policies of the two sites.

First, Facebook and Gmail differ in what extraneous information they collect. Facebook collects information “about your browser type, location, and IP address, as well as the pages you visit (emphasis added).” Gmail does not collect information on what pages you visit, but instead, limits its collection to relevant information such as IP address, browser type and language. At the risk of sounding biased, I ask you to consider what nefarious reason Facebook has for collecting information on what other sites you visit and what they are doing with this seemingly irrelevant information. They can get quite enough information for targeted advertisements from your listed interests and activities, as well as from your general information (age, location, gender, etc). (As a side note, although Google took some heat for supposed privacy violations in Google Buzz, this application had to be opted-in, and has since been updated to a better policy, and thus stands apart from the default and continuing privacy issues of Facebook.)

Second, the sites’ policies differ in scope. Both sites involve third party applications or affiliated sites. Whereas information provided to affiliated Google Services on other sites falls under Gmail’s privacy policy, information provided to popular third party applications on Facebook (even those pre-approved by Facebook) is subject to those applications’ privacy policies, which, as you can imagine, may not be all that respectful of your privacy.

Third, a friend’s settings on Facebook can affect the leakage of your private information:  “If your friend connects with an application or website, it will be able to access your name, profile picture, gender, user ID, and information you have shared with ‘everyone.’”  In Gmail, a contact’s privacy settings have no effect on your information.

Finally, there are various reasons why privacy on Facebook is worse than on Gmail in terms of Facebook-specific activities. If a friend on Facebooktags you in a photo or video or at a place, you can remove the tag, or you can limit who can see that you have been tagged on your profile, but you cannot prevent the person from tagging you in the first place. If they publish the tagged media to their news feed (which is often the default option), many people will likely see the offending picture/video/location before you get the chance to remove the tag yourself.

Another issue deals with Facebook’s default privacy settings. These settings allow “social ads” to use your picture in advertisements that your friends see, unless you opt-out. Gmail has no such egregious misuse of your information. Similarly, Facebook may store information about a payment source account that you use for transactions on Facebook (such as buying a virtual gift for a friend’s birthday). Again, Gmail does not store your bank account information. (While no analog features to social ads and virtual gifts currently exist in Gmail, they easily could be implemented, but tellingly, haven’t been).

There have also been issues with breaches in Facebook’s already lenient policy. Such leaks may allow apps to sell your information to ad companies and to track your online behavior. As many people still consider the Web a place that makes anonymity possible, this online footprint may leave you feeling unsettled and a little creeped out. The fact that a company such as Rapleaf may have been tracking you through Facebook, compiling information on you and selling your information should make you reconsider how anonymous you think your online activity, especially on Facebook, really is. For example, some political campaigns may buy information from Rapleaf (including voter-registration files, shopping history, social-networking activity, real estate records, and your name and email) to better target their demographic.

Remember when people were really upset by the lack of privacy of the then-new Facebook mini-feed? It seems we’ve been desensitized to this particular invasion of privacy. Let’s not continue this apathetic trend to the point where Big Brother can convict us of google search crimes (thoughtcrimes of the digital age).

Facebook Business Model 2.0: Infringe Now, Ask Questions Later – by “Thad D”

Well This Zucks...

Welcome to the new business model: infringe on your privacy first, ask questions later.  Now before I fully delve into the issue of Facebook’s new user privacy settings, I should note that I have always been a proponent of Facebook’s right to pursue what it feels is a profitable and satisfying business model.   Capitalism at its finest.  I have defended Facebook using what I have termed “The McDonald’s Defense”.  Often, consumers demand that businesses comply with outrageous orders.  For example, consider the following conversation:

McDonald’s Employee: Welcome to McDonald’s, may I take your order?

Customer:  Yes, hi.  I would like to order, uhm, a large double unsaturated soy mocha float, and two uncooked vegan tofu gluten-free eggs.

McDonald’s Employee:  Uh, sir, we don’t sell those-

Customer:  Oh and could those eggs be fried in omega-3 monopolyunsaturated fats from a Komodo dragon?

McDonald’s Employee:  **Confused Look**  May I help the next customer?

Of course, such a scenario seems ridiculous, but I use it to illustrate the fact that McDonald’s (i.e. Facebook) has the right to refuse service based on what it offers.  If you don’t like the way Facebook organizes its privacy controls, or any of its other features, go to Burger King (maybe, MySpace?).

But, what happened to me the other day was not a matter of asking for unreasonable privacy controls, but rather having my privacy infringed upon with a deceptive “opt-out” system.  Facebook now has a new “Instant Personalization” feature that allows partner websites to access personal information stored on Facebook’s servers without you knowing.  That’s right: FACEBOOK GAVE NO NOTICE OF THIS SERVICE, the only “warning” they gave was a small blue box at the top of each person’s home page that said privacy settings had changed.  Only after clicking “Learn More…” and digging to the very last section did I discover the feature.  Then, when I tried to disable it, I was confronted with the following confirmation page:

The More You Share, The More You Care (For Facebook's Wallet?)

Note that, although I have some of the strictest privacy settings on Facebook (no public search and the only things people who aren’t my friends can do are message me or add me as a friend), I was automatically opted into this Instant Personalization module.

So Facebook, where does that leave us?  You’re probably right, the “richness of the social interaction” from these new features is probably worth the hassle of a slight loss of anonymity because they provide so much convenience.  But why make it so hard to opt out?  Why not notify us about these changes?  WHAT INFORMATION ARE YOU GLEANING FROM THESE PROGRAMS THAT MAKE YOU WANT US TO PARTICIPATE SO BADLY?  WHAT IS “THE MAN” PAYING YOU?

Please, Mark Zuckerberg, get back to me on that.  You know how to reach me: just add “Thaddeus Diamond” as a friend, and click “Share”!

Insurance hikes, privacy risks, for social media users – by “Jacob A”

The Huffington Post recently reported on an prediction made by the website, which helps insurance payers navigate and compare different rates, about a probable rise in insurance premiums for social media users. Why would social media users see home insurance hikes? Because the status-updates and other information they furnish on the social media services they use, such as Twitter or Foursquare, alert burglars as to when they’re home, and when they’re not.

Tweeting something as benign as “great tilapia tacos @ Drew’s Taco Shack” is potentially unsafe as it alerts burglars to the fact that whoever is currently eating a taco with Drew is also not home. A new wesbite,, hopes to increase awareness about the dangers of publicly providing too much information, so it collects tweets and Facebook status updates and displays them to the world for anyone to see. means to make people realize the dangers of constantly updating and disseminating their location at all times, but it does so by letting robbers know when you’re not home, which is, although an admittedly pretty funny way of getting thoughtless social media users to think twice before tweeting “I’m I’m at Cali Yogurt,” also a lawsuit waiting to happen.

That said, it really is easy enough to find out where a sizeable chunk of the population lives by using Google’s phone number look up on a number or address. Consider also the enormous amounts of information provided by Google Earth or Streetview, and the extent to which digital technologies empower house robbers (or identity-thieves or other poorly intentioned individuals) becomes abundantly clear.

But even admitting that “criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their information gathering… to plan their burglaries with military precision,” as Darren Black, the head of home insurance at, has pointed out – does this justify insurance hikes? What standards of burglar-sensitive stupidity (e.g. “Oh no! In Mexico for three days & think I forgot to turn the heat off at home!”) will insurance providers use? How does one gauge burglary (or other) risks from a tweet or Facebook status update?  And isn’t the very purpose and function of social media to disseminate opinions, constantly updated personal information, microstatements about daily life and wherabouts? Insurance hikes might make sense if there is an actual increase in risk because of social media use, but they also go against the nature of these services. The Huffington Post article refers to a news clipping from 1983 warning telephone users about the dangers of voicemail. “If you have an answering machine that tells callers you are not at home it could alert potential burglars, advises Family Circle magazine.”

Isn’t the fear over the disclosure of too much information via Twitter et. al. unsubstantiated, given the fact that a great portion of tweets are sent via mobile (and hence out of the home) anyway? Wouldn’t home insurance hikes for social media users be just as silly as if they were applied to phone-owners who didn’t change their voicemail?

But the kinds of information we propagate online through 4square and Facebook and Twitter also point to the kind of information ecology we would like to live in. Sure, it’s easy enough to make your entire Facebook page private – but was privacy ever the point of social media? Is privacy, as Mark Zuckerberg (in)famously recently stated, “no longer a social norm.”

But, then, where does one draw the line between stupidity and paranoia? There are undeniable dangers to giving away too much of our privacy, but what might those be? Is it more reasonable to be worried about burglars robbing your home, or about the larger privacy or security implications of geolocative (social) media? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about national security compromises that arise when the heads of national intelligence disclose too much information online? For the average person, disclosing too much information may not be a security risk, but it certainly remains a privacy risk. Forget robbers – what about data trawllers, or hostile intelligence networks, or government agencies, or corporate interests, who amass our geolocative (and all our other) social media information?

By default, Facebook makes you publically searchable by everyone, and publically visible by everyone in your networks. Default settings go more often unchanged then not. Privacy is not a default setting. The question is whether it still remains a social standard.

Social media is still a new technology. It will have direct implications on things such as hikes in home insurance premiums, as well as much larger cultural consequences. Is a social media universe where it is considered unsafe to post birthdates, pets names, phone numbers, photos a friendly one? A social one? We may have to value privacy and friendliness against each other.

Positive Aspects of Information Brokers – by “Christian C”

Garindan - An Information Broker
Garindan - An Information Broker

In looking at the threat to privacy posed by information brokers indexing information and making it easily available, one might wonder whether there are any positive aspects to the business. Since Zabasearch, one of these sorts of information brokers, claims to just be a search engine that searches public records, one could first turn to Google to try and learn about the “positive aspects of information brokers.” Unfortunately one would be disappointed, if one were to search with quotes one would find zero results (presumably more now that this post uses that as a title), and without quotes around one million results. However looking through the first group of search results one finds no entries that actually appear to be about the business of selling other people’s personal information. There are things about real estate brokers, and how to create computer software to help search libraries and even information about information brokers, but nothing about why they are a good thing.

One next might go examine the website of such an information broker, again one might choose Zabasearch. There one will find a nice frequently asked questions page, discussing the fact that they are simply a powerless search engine without the power to adjust the information in their index, as it is all from public records (which ignores the fact that for a fee they offer the expedited service of blocking records, and if a record can be blocked it could equally be modified). There is also a  link to claiming to be reviewed by them, this link looks at the regrettable fact that Zabasearch appears to be legal (given the character of the link the editors of found it necessary to make it clear that they are not associated with Zabasearch, nor do they endorse it in anyway).

At this point the immediately obvious places to look for the positive aspects of these businesses have been exhausted, so one must attempt to discover them for oneself. If one leaves aside free market type arguments that all information should be as easy to find as possible in order to let the market function, and assume that privacy generally is something that should be protected, then there should be some benefit to these services. The most obvious of these benefits is that by making public records easily searchable, the public is made aware of the vast quantities of information available as part of the public record that one might not necessarily want to be publicly available, or at least want restrictions placed on the aggregating of the information. However, this is not generally a good reason, since the information brokers are a substantial cause of the problem. Another justification is that by making finding information easier and cheaper those who are unable to afford the services of private investigators or the time to search records themselves are able to access the information so as to pursue things like child support payments which the public sector does not necessarily have the time and resources to pursue. The counter point to the last is that it also makes it easier for less sophisticated stalkers or abusive former spouses to track down others.

Overall it seems that there are few positive aspects to the existence of information brokers.

Privacy? There’s an app for that – by “Stephen D”

As evidenced by the recent series of Apple commercials which state that “There’s an app for that,” the market for applications is skyrocketing.  Recently, the iPhone app store approved the 100,000th application.  While these applications may increase the functionality of these services, they create a huge increase in breaches of privacy.  Recently, the iPhone game developer Storm8, which is responsible for the two popular games Vampires Live and iMobsters, was sued for allegedly collecting phone numbers of iPhone gamers without their consent.  This lawsuit states that the games included “malicious software code” that transmits the phone numbers of anyone who plays the game back to Storm8.  The company claims that this was a “bug.”  The most concerning part of this incident is not that phone numbers were stolen (though that is a valid concern), but that Storm8’s developers were able to get “malicious software code” past Apple’s app store approval process.  While phone numbers are relatively benign, it’s possible that a more deviant software designer could get more malicious code past this approval process; for example, many customers store email addresses and passwords on their iPhone.  A hacker with access to these, though a corrupt app, could easily hack into someone’s email account steal their identity.  Similarly to the iPhone, Facebook also has a sizeable number applications.  These applications also create gaps in privacy.  For instance, many of Facebook’s online quizzes are popular.  However, in order to take these quizzes, users must allow these applications to access their profiles, which contain lots of personal information.  Additionally, some of these online quizzes try to lure users into giving away valuable data.  One online quiz asked not only for a person’s middle name, but also for their mother’s maiden name.  All of these new apps, both in Facebook and the iPhone, come at the cost of security.

So who is responsible for these apps?  Since Facebook and Apple both closely regulate their processes of approval, it seems obvious that Facebook and Apple should be responsible for this.  However, that does not necessarily mean that they should be held liable.  Facebook has a stronger legal stance with this respect, as the first time a customer wants to use any Facebook application, they have to agree to a privacy policy, which states that this application is authorized to access all their data.  Similarly, I would recommend that Apple have a comparable agreement when downloading apps, in order to put the responsibility on the developers.  However, Apple and Facebook should keep a close eye on this issue, to avoid bad publicity.