Single Source Attribution Data and Online Privacy

Single Source Attribution Data and Online Privacy
September 7, 2016 Benjamin Shapira

The dawn of the Internet was heralded as the age of open information. The Internet was supposed to be an open platform where people of the world – regardless of age, education, ethnicity, sex or any other defining factor – could share ideas and learn from each other. It was supposed to be the great levelling factor – the democratization of ideas to the world.

As the Internet continued to mature and grow, the idea of data – specifically metadata – has become the centre of attention.

The idea of collecting information on every digital person (your device ID, IP address, email address, mobile number or any other piece of information that can make you and therefore your data unique) seemed harmless at the time. For most people, the notion that there was nothing to worry about as long as you had nothing to hide was the norm. But people have failed to understand the extent that they are being watched and tracked.

With the revelations of Edward Snowden (a true hero in my books), we soon came to realize that the proliferation of data collection had gone well beyond that of advertisers and marketers. The idea that Meta data could tell a story – much like that of a private investigator, started a conversation about online privacy.

The truth about government surveillance should have raised massive alarm bells. It should have caused a massive uproar in the broader population. The fact is that as generations grow up with technology, they seem less and less concerned about their privacy.

Want a less scary version?

Here is John Oliver from Last Week Tonight talking about surveillance:

The growth of social networks showcases this case in point. Facebook (and Instagram by extension), twitter, Google +, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Periscope and dozens of other sites were originally designed to bring people together; to share their daily lives with friends and family when they couldn’t be close. In fact, these sites are responsible for some of the most offensive tracking behaviours.

So lets get an idea of the type of information social sites can collect – either because you directly gave it to them or because of their native mobile phone APPs:

  • Full Name
  • Birth Date
  • Address
  • Travel History
  • GPS Traces – Movements based on your phone’s built-in GPS
  • Contacts
  • Browsing History
  • Medical History
  • Political Views

That is creepy enough, but what about non-social media sites?

Initially marketers, advertisers and brands used this information sparingly, but as they came to grips with the value this information had to offer, the mass collection of every single but of information has become commonplace.

Marketers have become quite good at driving new points or rewards systems that can be leveraged at the point of sale of their locations and a variety of ‘preferred partners’ to help created a detailed report of who you are, what you buy etc.

Try it out for yourself.

If you have the Firefox browser, download a free plugin called Lightbeam. It creates a spider diagram of third-party companies who access your data each time you visit a website and shows how they are linked together. Here is a trace of 5 websites (CNN, TechCrunch, Ebay, Facebook and Etsy) that shows just on initial load, 135 third-party companies are accessing my data without my direct consent. On many sites like news or eCommerce sites, if you leave the tab open for more than 2-5 minutes another batch of third-party companies will begin to access your data for re-marketing purposes.

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So what you say?

Well take out your mobile phone and look at it. This is the single best tool available to track you as an individual, know everything about you and to change who you are and what you believe. It is called single source attribution. The idea that all data collected through a single source can be attributed to a single individual. We no long have to talk in broad demographic terms, we now have direct data on a specific individual.

Well let’s start to put all of this together.

Regardless if you are a government agency, a social media site or a marketer, lets look at exactly what meta data can tell us.

With your mobile phone, you give up access to:

  • Your Hardware ID – a unique ID that matches all of your data against your SIM card and therefore your mobile number.
  • Access to your microphone – everything you say, all background conversations and noises, your music habits etc.
  • Access to your camera (and recent FBI revelations show the light doesn’t always come on when it is on). This can help to ‘see’ where you are, but more importantly, it can follow your eyesight when you are consuming content, measure your pupil dilation and other facial responses against content that is on your device.
  • Your photo and video libraries
  • Browser history
  • Your contacts
  • Your backing history
  • Your public transport history
  • Your health information
  • GPS traces – accuracy of where you go down to 1.5 metres.
  • Messaging history

With all of this, you start to gain a pretty clear picture of a person, who their friends are, how often they meet, where they meet, what they do for a living etc. All without having to lift a finger.

Ever wondered why just based on a phone call or a conversation with a friend that all of a sudden you start to see ads based on what you just spoke about? Facebook has openly admitted that it accesses your microphone and listens to your conversations. Why? Well, they say it is to help you. To make its content more relevant, but in truth, it is using this information to sell ad space, collect data and to effectively change your ideas and mood over time.

Don’t believe me?

In 2012 Facebook was caught conducting a vast experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users’ home pages and found it could make people feel more positive or negative through a process of “emotional contagion”. There is nothing to say this type of experiment has not happened since, we simply have not heard about it.

Glen Greenwald did a TED talks on why privacy matters back in 2014 and it is definitely worth a watch.

So wake up everyone. The idea of big brother is here and now. Our information is everywhere and the chilling effect it will ultimately have on all of us is just beginning. Anyone who has an opinion contrary to the define standard, those who openly protest, those who express themselves even a little will soon see the mighty had of social convention thrust on them.

The Internet should be free and open, not a tool to allow businesses and government to track and manipulate the public into brainless masses.

So WAKE THE FUCK UP – and be aware of what is going on around you. There are tools out there that can help you manage your data, but the best advice is to be aware of what is happening in the first place.

Benjamin Shapira


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