The end of Internet privacy?

05Dec07

Every time you log onto the Internet, your actions are being logged and someone (or something) is making use of your online habits.

One site which profits from this technology is Amazon. Unless it is a first visit, every time you log on to Amazon you will be presented with recommended products for purchase. Amazon collect this data based upon your past purchases as well as other peoples similar purchases to your own. This technology has been in place for several years, but recently the Facebook Beacon project gained a lot of bad press for a similar type of software.

Beacon records user actions from various websites and then passes this data onto Facebook. How do they do this? I can’t say I personally understand all the technical jargon, but here is an extract from an article about the project written by Ben Adida:

The reconciliation happens in your browser, of course, since your browser is logged in to Amazon and (most likely) to Facebook. The Amazon HTML includes some JavaScript code that it pulls down from Facebook. This JavaScript code opens up a hidden frame onto Facebook, which recognizes you. There’s some fancy inter-server communication stuff going on (the details are interesting only to folks like me), but the point is that the communication between Amazon and Facebook is mediated by your browser.

Initially, there was no opt-out option from sending this data, but after all the negativity Facebook swiftly moved to ensure users where aware of the information being sent.

Although both Amazon and Beacon essentially do the same thing (gathers information about others to recommend things to you) there is one significant difference; the Amazon algorithms for producing the suggested links don’t expose any individuals personal data. This is Beacons major downfall. People don’t want the fact that they just purchased a cuddly toy from Shop.com on their Facebook profiles – after all, it could well be a gift for a friend. On the other hand, if Facebook merely used the users purchase history privately and displayed relevant product ads to them, I doubt there would be too many complaints. Using the technology in this way would no question increase ad-revenue for Facebook as they would be providing user-generated targeted ads.

What does Beacon signal for our all round user privacy online? Beacon gathers it’s data by harnessing the power of your web browser. If you log into Facebook and then in the same session log into one of the partner sites your data is being exposed. What about when Beacon expands? Your every action could theoretically be tracked.

Visit illegal sites? They’ll know.

Buy your wife’s Christmas present from a second hand auction? They’ll know.

Download music without paying? They’ll know.

The legitimate uses for Beacon are of course clear (as Amazon’s similar technology has proven), but once other companies ‘cotton on’ to this new found possibilities of communicating within your browser – we could all be at risk of losing our online freedom.

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