Invasion of privacy online

I know I’m not the only one having trouble with the rapidly increasing assault on my privacy while I use the Internet. It’s getting downright creepy.

A couple of weeks ago I was looking at a weekender bag on Roots. The next day it was featured in an ad on another site I was browsing.

“Hey look – there’s the bag I want!” I said. “That’s so funny it’s in an ad!”

A few days later it wasn’t very funny anymore. The Roots bag began to stalk me as I moved from site to site, regardless of the site I was on. It got to the point where I really didn’t want the bag anymore because it was so popular and over-exposed.

Of course, that wasn’t really the case at all. Roots had left a little script behind on my own computer in the first place. This “cookie” continued to neatly insert the image of the bag at every opportunity it could find over the next few days. They obviously weren’t going to let me forget about it.

I soon noticed my Facebook ads were getting rather pointed as well. A certain (ahem) health product I had been researching began popping up in numerous guises – and from a variety of companies – in the right side column. I assured myself that of course no one else knew the topic of my search – unless they happened to use my computer. But tonight while on Facebook I noticed the names of two people I do know, who must have clicked on an Ikea ad in Facebook. Or perhaps they visited and picked up a third-party cookie (scripts placed on other websites to track your browsing information).

No offense to Cate and Brian, but I really don’t want to know that! I don’t want ANYONE to know if I visited Ikea, and I don’t want to know who else did!

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Ikea, and I’ve long ago given up the idea of personal privacy in many aspects of my life. There’s just something very doppelganger about these little scripts tip-toeing around after me and other people I know, and waving to everyone else to announce everything we do. It’s…  weird. It’s also completely relentless.

Recently a friend posted an article from the San Francisco Chronicle about social reader apps. It outlines how Facebook’s idea of “frictionless sharing” has grown. “No activity is too big or too small to share,” Facebook claims. I guess that includes my search for a small nameless health product. (Heck – wait a minute – you’ve probably already know what it was!)

And the whole thing is utterly pervasive. The Washington Post Social Reader gets your name, profile picture, gender, user ID, friends list, the networks you’ve joined and anything you’ve posted publicly. Under the default setting, it can also post every article you read through the app, the people you’ve “liked” and more. Yahoo’s social reader gets most of that, plus your e-mail address, birthday and permission to post the videos you watch. Google has dedicated itself to capturing every site you visit and letting your friends know if you “plussed” it. In 2011, Google Buzz drew criticism for violating user privacy because it automatically allowed Gmail users’ contacts to view their other contacts. In February this year, Google announced it will now combine user data across all of its services –  including search, Gmail, YouTube, Google+ and Google Docs.

How can these companies proceed as if nothing is wrong?! A post on Venture Beat  confirms the worst:  One in every 10 US consumers has now been victimized by identity theft. Online public data can be used to predict the full 9-digit social security numbers of nearly 5 million people.  More than 900,000  sites employ Facebook “Like” buttons, feeding yet more information directly into Facebook. Both Google and Facebook are currently facing 20 years of privacy audits, but they keep rolling out information I really don’t want to know, and show no signs of slowing down.

I digress. I am currently online at a news site that is displaying ads for malware, dog heartworm medicine and bicycle panniers – all topics I’ve researched in the past couple of days. While it is heartening to know that Google slowly “fades” cookies from its history of me over two or three weeks, I have a feeling this says more about Google not wanting to get too bunged up with data about my searches than it does about giving me some breathing room.

Logging off here.