I keep a close eye on privacy issues because many companies are hoping we’ll all fall asleep and they’ll be able to do whatever comes to mind. I was recently appalled by a ComputerWorld article that describes a new technique that companies such as Verizon and AT&T are using to track you even when you perform tasks such as clearing your cookies. The sort of encroachment on privacy discussed in this article has nothing to do with the usual user sloppiness that I described in An Unreasonable Expectation of Privacy. (In this post I encourage people to keep their private lives private by not posting secrets on Facebook and other social media.) This new threat is different in that companies are actively circumventing your ability to remain anonymous. No matter what you do, companies are now able to snoop on your browsing habits and they’re quite open in saying that they don’t care if you mind.
The use of Unique Identifier Headers (UIDHs) should be illegal. In fact, the companies that are burdening users with this unwanted technology shouldn’t have created it in the first place because it’s a bad idea. The article tries to gloss over the fact that these companies knew full well what they were doing and are sheepishly trying to say that they never meant any harm. The organizations using the technology are stupidly placing the burden on the user to opt out, but giving themselves all sorts of outs for just ignoring the request. Opting out through organizations such as the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) or the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) carries no legal weight. A company can choose to ignore your request and there is nothing you can do about it. If an opt out solution truly is required, it should carry some penalties for companies that choose to ignore the user’s request for privacy.
Of course, you could always question why you should care about companies snooping on your habits. After all, you have nothing to hide. Privacy is important because it allows you to do as you choose. You still have an ethical requirement to behave within the laws that society lays down, but you should also be free to browse where you want on the Internet without someone snooping on you. It’s a short trip from snooping on your browsing habits to other kinds of snooping. As society becomes inured to the snooping, companies can begin performing other sorts of snooping, some of which would be clearly inconvenient or dangerous.
Setting a precedent of allowing companies to snoop without consequence will lead to all sorts of issues in the future. As you lose your freedoms to corporations who really don’t care whether you’re free or not (actually, they’d prefer to enslave you), you begin to lose a lot of what makes our current society worthwhile. It’s time that government did step in and start controlling the use of snooping online (and not actually perform snooping itself). After all, one of the purposes of government is to protect citizens from precisely the kinds of threats that UIDHs represent. Let me know your thoughts about snooping at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.