Opinion » Cybernaut

The privacy pursuit

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A few weeks ago, on a news aggregator site I frequent, I stumbled on a posting from someone who was booking a flight. The first time he searched for a flight he was quoted one price. He closed that tab, shopped around some more, and then returned — only to find that the price for that flight had gone up $50. Confused, he consulted a friend who knows a few things about the web, and who advised him to clear his cookies and try again. Sure enough, the original price was available.

There are a few possibilities for this. One is that the airline's system has allocated a certain numbers of seats on that flight at a discounted rate — and one seat was taken or being held while the searcher was looking for flights, and became available again when the shopper returned.

Another, more likely, possibility is that the user was being tracked.

I won't mention the online booking agent because apparently a lot of them do this, and it's fairly standard in e-commerce in general — prices are adjusted automatically to meet the demand, and demand was established by the original search for the flight.

Comparison shopping may be the way of the world now, but companies don't have to like it — and can't be blamed for discouraging it at every turn. They'd like nothing more than to return to the old days when people leapt at opportunities, and didn't spend time comparing prices for every little thing with every retailer in the known universe.

But as a consumer, sometimes it's better to be anonymous. The best way to avoid tracking while shopping online is to set your browser to its privacy mode, which doesn't store any information that would allow a website to track you. However, unless you take the drastic step of using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) there are still ways that companies can keep an eye on you — like forcing/encouraging you to register before you shop online, or recording any unique information like your IP address. It's a fact of Internet life that everybody is tracking you in one way or another.

Last week there was a story about the online travel agent Orbitz. They use a program that detects what kind of computer you're using, and if you're using an Apple to search for flights then they automatically rank the most expensive travel options up top. The cheaper options are still available when you scroll down or jump to the next page, but they know that the majority of people will book from the first page of search results. And because people who own MacBooks generally have more money than the average consumer, in theory anyway, more will choose the more expensive option and Orbitz will make more money.

It's not really dishonest, even if the use of profiling techniques like this makes people uncomfortable. But all things considered it's really no different than buying a car, and being steered by a salesperson to the more expensive models or have them try to sell you upgrades.

Social networks and search engines (except for DuckDuckGo.com and Ixquick.com) also use tracking and profiling, which I think most people have come to expect and tolerate even if they have concerns about privacy. Most people are honest and, as the reasoning goes, don't think they have anything to hide. The usefulness of Google and Facebook far outweighs the "ick" factor of being watched.

The reality is that in the information age, data has become a form of currency — and that currency is absolutely vital to keeping sites free and services like social networks available. It ensures you see the ads they want you to see and that the companies providing you with a service can make a return on their investment.

The accumulation of data is so integral to the workings of the web that Microsoft even backed down on a Do Not Track (DNT) default feature in Internet Explorer 10 (although it's still available as an option). Given the anger of advertisers, ecommerce sites, news sites and others that depend on getting data, Microsoft had no choice but to back down.

Do Not Track is such a big issue that the Commerce Committee of the U.S. Senate held a hearing last week, wondering if the industry can be trusted to be self-regulating or whether government needed to step in and determine what kind of tracking is allowed — and whether companies like Microsoft should be able to offer Do Not Track services that hurt other industries.

Privacy promises to be an ongoing issue for internet users as they participate more, joining social networks, shopping online, signing up for services, registering for forums and using the cloud. The age of a passive Internet, where information is posted by one person and read by another, is over.

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