As part of Session 5 of our CATS lecture, we watched a video called “The Virtual Revolution“. It is a documentary that the BBC made and the particular part that we watched dealt with “The Birth of the Internet“. The episode started talking about how the internet came to be, specifically, how businesses took advantage of the internet. But then very quickly, it moved to the topic of how the internet collects and uses personal data.
The internet features a lot of free resources such as sites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and others. However, when people use these free services, they often don’t realise they are giving these companies the right to use your personal data to provide advertising directly to you bought by other companies.
For instance, the program touches on Google’s use of the internet. Google’s services are free, but to keep them free, they sell advertisements to businesses. Google keeps a record of things that you do when you use their services. Everything from what exactly you search for to the contents of your e-mails. Google then use this data to serve advertisements to you based on the data it collects about you, using their “Adwords” technology. This can be seen as a helpful service, but can also be seen as an invasion of privacy.
Amazon do something similar, except they track what you look at on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com and recommend items on Amazon that you may be interested in based on the items you have looked at.
Another thing that businesses do is looks at small files on your computer called Cookies. Cookies are downloaded to your computer when you view a website which identify which website you have been looking at. Then as you go on other sites, the adverts on the site look at your cookies and serve advertising content to the user based on the sites that they look at. This is not only an invasion on privacy and tracks your browsing behaviour, but the advertising has no context with regards as to why you’ve been looking at the sites you have been looking at.
Usually, any data collected by these companies is kept private. However, some time ago, AOL released a list of searches by 650,000 people using the AOL services. A journalist was then able to find out exactly who this person was just by using the information from the data released by AOL and a phone book. This is something that users must bear in mind when using these services as anything you do will be visible to the provider and whilst they are legally obliged to keep your data private, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will.