That is an interesting question! In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell introduced a shadowy character named Big Brother who constantly watched every movement of every citizen. When the novel appeared in 1949, westerners decided he was describing Joseph Stalin’s Russia and soon forgot about the novelty. But was it just imagination?
Big Brother almost became reality in America in the 1950’s, when a senator named McCarthy began accusing law-abiding citizens of being communists, or soviet spies and sympathizers just because they had liberal dispositions. McCarthy fell from public favour after wrecking many business careers. In 1954, he had the dubious distinction of receiving censure in the U.S. Senate by a huge majority. His legacy was renewed resolve throughout the west to never again target individuals because of their values or behavioural preferences. This is something we still hold dear to us as citizens of the ‘free’ world, with the obvious exception of the national security agencies we trust to keep us free.
Under EU law, personal data can only be gathered legally under strict conditions, for a legitimate purpose – here is more information about Data Protection Rights
The answer is ‘not always, especially on the internet’. What if you had a teenage daughter, and I told you a person was secretly stalking her, logging every page visited? Plus the stalker had also infiltrated her social circle and was monitoring every conversation. You would have the right to be very, very angry, and we should hope the police would willingly intervene.
We have just described the process that the advertising industry follows, as it tracks our behaviour on the internet, and logs every page, and every website that we visit. The industry considers this practice legal and ethically correct. It says that knowing us better means it can target each of us with advertising that meets our needs. The advertising industry goes to many lengths to emphasize that tracking keeps non-corporate websites afloat, and by extension subsidies the internet. Imagine, it says, having to pay a toll to visit our favourite news sites. It says the same is true of all other forms of mass media too, such as television and the newspapers, and this is why they cost so little.
The difficulty we have with internet stalking is it is happening in an unregulated space. Imagine if a computer failed somewhere and your daughter suddenly faced a tidal wave of, let’s say unacceptable and unwanted invitations. Surely, we should not have to run that risk. But we do, and every one of us does every day, because a system somewhere opted us into being snooped on, on every web page in cyberspace that we visit.
When you log onto the internet on a computer or mobile device, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) allocates a unique reference number so it can distinguish your machine from all the others on its system. To find out what your Internet Protocol address (IP) is, search for “What is my IP address’, and you will find services, that can tell you your IP number, a number divided into 4 parts by dots.
The information relating to an IP number is a public number, and it is tied to geolocation services, able to determine where your computer is located. This is one step in a process of discovering the behavioural preferences of the user(s) of that computer. There are many more indicators, in reality, so many that your computer most likely leaves a unique fingerprint. You can test which fingerprints your browser and computer leaves at Pantopclick – fingerprint test.
This opens up an interesting debate that is worth exploring. Our identities often intermingle with equipment registered in our name. For example, when a motor vehicle acquires a parking ticket, the law assumes the owner committed the misdemeanour. Similarly, when someone tracks the information passing through your router, it is as good as if they were watching you on a hidden video camera, which, in the latter case, any competent court of law should regard as a breach of privacy.
The legality of someone tracking the information flow to and from your computer is not as clear-cut. This is because the internet is largely an unregulated free space where just about anything goes. Many services collect information about your interests without your knowledge, just to profile you and sell your private interests to the highest bidding advertiser.
Online agencies can create a profile of a person based on browsing patterns. The searches they conduct, the pages they visit, the time spent there, the number of clicks made, and their overall interaction with the site point to topics that interest them. These can, in turn, identify them with a particular demographic, for example a teenage rap music fan, a gym enthusiast, and so on.
Let us imagine a person visiting retirement-related websites, and spending time going through catalogues of apartments for sale. Clearly, they are thinking of investing, but where are they in the funnel? Which sites are they surfing, what are they reading, what are they searching for and at what time – this is all done across the devices the person uses. With the information collected it is sufficient information to profile the person, and then it might be reasonable to assume he or she is still working, but coming up to retirement.
They would thus be above-average prospects for the following advertising campaigns, to mention but a few:
The major search engines would like us to believe that behaviour tracking simplifies our lives, by making it easier for us to find information on the internet. That is partly true: what they do not say is they achieve this by limiting the scope of information to what they believe we need to know. The implications of this are obvious. We are entering a filter bubble, where a system and its algorithm begins to limit our life choices.
The European Union are putting legislation in place to try to stop monopolies from collection and selling data about you. On the other hand, advertisers are working hard to dilute its power. Laws may eventually help secure our rights to cyber privacy. Until then, we must manually choose alternative free search engines, like findx, and by browsing in Privafox, decide what websites to trust.