Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Online Privacy: When is A. Nonymous Really Anonymous?

The WSJ published a great series on the amount of tracking cookies (and "beacons," which I had never heard of) that even top sites install on your PC to keep tabs on what you browse and where you shop. Here is the homepage with all the resources (no subscription required):

Personally, I am not too paranoid by the thought of a company where I shop keeping tabs on what I do if it helps the shopping experience (plus, if I disable all cookies, I have to punch in my login details every time I go to Amazon or check my e-mail). However, the third-party tracking applications are a concern; i.e., cookies beamed into your PC by advertising companies that draw up anonymous (but highly detailed) profiles of who you are. 

As in the case of Google Books, I don't believe companies necessarily would put this information to uses that I might object to. However, they might do so in the future and that is a potential problem. Likewise, I applaud the Google Books initiative since it will revolutionize the world of books and knowledge. Besides, if debt-ridden governments don't do it, why shouldn't you let a private company willing to pony up the cash? However, as Robert Darnton has argued, Google could use some of the provisions of its agreement with libraries to establish a monopoly over out-of-print books that creates huge barriers to entry for would-be competitors. And that is a little scary.

If you're worried about companies snooping on your online comings and goings, follow this tutorial to fend off trackers:

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