Every Breath You Take, Every Click You Make, I’ll Be Watching You

For years now, consumer watchdog reporters like Jeff Rossen have been warning us that hackers could be watching us through our computer webcams. In response, I’ve decided to take precautions. Specifically, I’m making sure my hair is brushed and my makeup is applied before opening my laptop. Hello, Mr. Hacker! How do I look?

That’s it. I’m not going to freak out about the idea too much, because a.) I think it’s highly unlikely, and b.) the most scandalous thing a hacker is going to see through my webcam is just how messy my desk is. I’m not dancing around naked in front of my webcam, EVER. No one is going to see any nudity through my computer unless I start using my laptop in the shower, in which case I’ve probably got much bigger problems than worrying about some hacker seeing my boobs.

The other reason I’m not freaking out about it is because I know firsthand that if you’re on the internet, the internet is watching every single thing you do anyway. That’s been true since even before a new resolution allowing ISPs to collect and sell your browsing history to advertisers passed the U.S. Senate yesterday.

For example, if you are looking at this post right now–I know about it. (Thanks for reading, by the way.) I can see exactly how many people open each article. I can see how you found my blog — ie., by clicking through a Facebook or Twitter post, a Google search, or through a link in an article I wrote for another publication. I can tell whether you are reading my blog on a smartphone or an iPad or on a computer, and what browser you are using when you do it. I can see what country you are in when you’re reading it. (Seriously, someone is coming to me from Mauritius?)

If I can tell all of that from a humble personal blog on a website that I did not develop and do not own, perhaps you can begin to imagine how much info the owner of a more sophisticated website has access to. Having worked in the world of digital advertising for the past 6 years, I can tell you that, in addition to the info above, we were able to pinpoint what zip code people were coming from, what time of day, and what color bra they were wearing. (Just kidding about that last part; just making sure you were paying attention.) If you were subscribed to our e-newsletter, we could tell which email addresses were opening our emails, how many times you opened them, and what links you personally clicked on within each email we sent you.

Think about how valuable this kind of information could be to an advertiser. If you have a business and you advertise it through a full-page ad in your local newspaper–you really have no idea how many people are seeing your ad, and certainly no idea how many people are coming into your store or buying what you’re selling based on that ad. You also have no control over who is seeing your ad. You can guess that most of the readers are from a general geographic location, but you don’t know if they are moms, dads, grandparents, business people, teachers, hunters, car enthusiasts, wine connoisseurs, Republicans, Democrats, basketball fans, stamp collectors, shoe addicts, bookworms, or what…

Conversely, if you put an ad on the internet, you can easily find out exactly how many times your ad was seen (that’s called “impressions’ in the world of digital advertising) and how many times people clicked on your ad (“click-throughs”), not to mention exactly where those people are coming from, and what else they look at on the internet.

Here’s how advertisers can use that information, in a super overly-simplified nutshell. A large entity, aka Google, “rents” blank advertising space on various websites (I could rent space out to Google right here on my lowly blog if I chose to; I’d get paid based on the number of impressions and clicks that space gets). Businesses pay Google to put their ads in these rented advertising spaces. Google uses its analytical tools to fill those rented ad spaces with the ads of the businesses that best match the interests of whatever user happens to be looking at that page at any given moment. So if I send a link to my column in the local paper to my cousin in Arizona, she might see an ad for a Phoenix-area restaurant showing up in a box inside the article, even though my local paper is based in Central Pennsylvania.

Say my cousin clicks on the ad for that restaurant, then later she goes on Facebook and–weird– there’s an ad for that same restaurant! Then, she clicks on a Facebook post about the Final Four that takes her to an article on ESPN.com, and, whaddya know, there’s an ad for that restaurant again! What a coincidence! NOT! That’s called “retargeting” or “remarketing,” and it’s extremely intentional and absolutely brilliant. I personally have had a cute pair of canvas block-heeled sandals from Zappos following me around for about a week, and I have to admit, it’s wearing me down; I’m getting close to pulling the trigger.

But if you find this idea to be more creepy than brilliant, there are a couple things you can do. First of all, clear your history and block third-party browser cookies (the way you this varies according to the browser you are using, but is most likely under Settings, Preferences, and/or Privacy). Cookies are little pieces of data that are stored in your own computer or smartphone, leaving a trail of information about the sites you’ve visited–making them more like “breadcrumbs” than “cookies,” in my opinion, but hey, I didn’t name them. Cookies can be helpful in a lot of ways; for example, they allow you to stay logged in to certain websites so you don’t have to put in your password every time you visit, and they make browsing a lot faster if you’re visiting the same sites often.  But cookies are also the things that Google looks at when deciding what ads to show you.

You can also turn on a Private or Incognito Browsing setting, which again varies according to the device and browser you are using. This setting is especially useful if you are using a public computer and don’t want your private info to become attached to that device.

Both of these solutions might stop personalized ads from following you around, but neither of these solutions is going to keep ISPs like Verizon and Comcast from knowing where and what you are looking at on the internet and selling that information to advertisers under the new resolution if it passes the House. Whether you love that idea or hate it, if you feel strongly about that piece of your privacy on the internet, you may want to voice your feelings to your representative.

Meanwhile, if you’re creeped out by the idea of Mr. Hacker spying on you through your webcam, Jeff Rossen himself has a two-word, high tech fix for you: Duct Tape.

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