Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Why we should all worry about worrying about being tracked online

The Grauniad has published a fairly sensible article about online privacy.  Yes, relax, I really did say that, but it's a technical topic not a political one, so I'm not going soft.  They point to a new piece of software being developed by a nasty horrible private sector company (they couldn't help it...) which is very efficient at tracking people by their online persona and identifying outliers - who may merit closer inspection by the authorities.

All very easy to justify, after all most of us are normal apart from the terrorists who do different stuff.  Except that, as the Guardian rightly points out, statistics don't work like that - there are (thankfully) very few terrorists and a very large number of people, so the vast majority of the outliers will be perfectly decent citizens who suddenly start wondering why there is a big black Transit van at the end of their road...

I do of course wish the Guardian had realised this in 1997 instead of 2010, but better late than never.  I suspect they may forget it in 2015, though.  But that misses the point of this post.  The article warns us that we reveal ourselves via the online footprint we leave, and that authorities can glean a lot of information in this way, perfectly legally, and without any oversight.

So, where was the article published?  In the online Guardian, of course, with a comments section beneath it that could be used by that nasty piece of software.  On a site that uses cookies - not just site performance cookies that make the site work consistently for you, but also advertising cookies that, err, track your behaviour on the site and retain information about what you look at, what you take an interest in.

But they have a privacy policy, surely?  Of course.  And they promise that they will "do our utmost to protect user privacy through the appropriate use of the security technology".  By, for example, collecting information  about your behaviour which enables them to group it with users that show similar behaviour. Just like the software mentioned in the article.

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think there's anything especially unusual or wrong about the Guardian's privacy policies.  But it struck me as amusing.