Who’s Watching You?

Posted by Viktoria Michaelis on October 30, 2012 in Internet, News & Opinion |

You’ll have seen it more than once, if you’re really interested in Social Media Networking, you’ll have seen it many times: Big Brother. Stories, articles, essays and a whole mess of scaremongering about what happens each and every time you log onto the Internet. Someone, somewhere is watching over you, peeking over your shoulder and following your every move whilst you are surfing. They know about what you’ve bought on Amazon, what you search for on Google, your status updates on Facebook and Twitter. You may have the curtains drawn and the door locked, but you are never alone on the Internet.


In Germany there is a great deal of legal pressure on politicians, not so much pressure from the public because they know better, but from civil rights organizations and the like, to limit the ability of some web sites to gather information. I’ve written about Facebook and Google gathering information, and given my own opinion: you enter the information voluntarily, so be it! It is, however, much more than that.

The Internet is the biggest potential marketplace ever. We can talk about markets such as China and the United States, about emerging markets and First and Third World markets. They have nothing compared to the potential of the Internet, because the Internet brings every single country together, almost into one melting pot, and has all the possibilities at someone’s fingertips for exploitation. Not necessarily in a bad way, not all exploitation is bad, but in a way which could define how the market evolves, what offers are made and how web sites and online stores are designed and geared up for the customer of the future.

In short, someone out there is gathering information on you and your habits.

Now, most of the information being gathered is harmless. It is information you have entered yourself – such as by Facebook – and it is information on what you need or enjoy – such as by Google, Yahoo, Bing and any other search engine you care to mention. It is information about what you have bought – where else can Amazon get its recommendations from other than your buying habits?

And the rest of the information?

The rest is a gathering of your surfing habits. Which web sites have you visited and how long have you stayed there? Where did you come from and where did you go? Which page did you land on and which search words did you use to get there? You’ll have seen my information gathering, which words bring people to this site, which pages and posts are more popular than others. And I do it in a very small way indeed. I could take a look and see which country you live in, which web browser you use, which language you use even, and this is something which could be of interest for me later, what level of education you might have. And all that without you entering a single word on this site, without you saying so much as Hello! and waving as you go through.

No, I’m not watching you personally, don’t worry! I, like so many others, have all this information at my fingertips but only use selected pieces to decide which topics and themes work best, which areas of my blog attract the most visitors, the most interest.

Now, what would happen if I could use all this technology at my fingertips to see what you do on other sites? What if I could set up a little bit of spying software on another site and see whether you visit when that site has no other connection to me?

I can tell you right now, that has happened since you’ve arrived here. You’ve been checked by others. You’ve been checked by Google (Google Analytics), by Alexa, by Facebook. Even if you don’t have a Facebook account, you’ve been checked.

Why and how?

Why, well, Facebook is a site which gathers all manner of information to advance its own advertising strategy. You don’t need to be there for Facebook to want to know what interests you, to be able to build up a global picture of what is popular and what is on the way out. Each time you see the Facebook symbol on a web site, even if you don’t press Like, you’ve been seen, your visit has been noted. The page has loaded in your browser and the Like button has been loaded direct from Facebook.

How do you think some sites know when others are hotlinking to their photographs and images? The visit, on another web site, has been logged and, eventually, evaluated.

You think that you’ve only been surfing safe sites? Think again.

Two days ago I installed a new tracking checker on my system. It tells me how many other companies are watching my every move, how many spies there are out there. I went through my normal surfing routine, a little bit of Twitter, a touch of Facebook, some StumbleUpon, a hint of Google Plus and a few sites which I won’t mention because they’re, well, adult. Not that I am shy, but hey…

and this is the result. Two days, that is perhaps seven or eight hours.

Let’s get one thing right out of the way: in the majority of cases Facebook, and all the others tracking, do not know who you are. They can’t put a name to your activities, or a face. That is, unless you happen to be logged in to Facebook while you’re surfing elsewhere. Unless you happen to still have the Facebook cookie saved in your computer. They can see where you are, where you’ve been, which country you are in and, probably, also which area from your IP address, but they don’t know who you are.

Is this a bad thing, this gathering of information for marketing purposes?

Perhaps there will indeed come a time when Minority Report – the film with Tom Cruise – is not just a threat but a reality. A time when your features can be recognised from afar and advertising is adapted to your needs, your interests. At the moment it is all limited to offers made when you log into the web sites of your choice and based upon the information you’ve given up voluntarily. But some of that information is already being used to influence other people in their buying choices.

Who hasn’t seen the little addition on Amazon: people who bought this book also bought…

This is the thin edge of the wedge, this is just the beginning. This is the information other people have put in to a web site being used to influence you. It’s one thing to say that an item might interest you based on what you’ve purchased before, but quite another to have information based on what other people have looked at or bought.

And it is also a simple fact of life, you cannot avoid it. I may well have been able to block over three thousand tracking attempts during my few hours of surfing, but did they catch all of them? More to the point, aside from Facebook, who is tracking me? The Big Bad Wolf is not an advertising company checking on who has been looking at their banners or pop-ups. The Big Bad Wolf is those tracking companies who gather information, press it all together and then sell it to others. The anonymous, faceless people we have nothing to do with. Are they just marketing companies, or is the government, any government, hiding behind them? Has the CIA found me and decided to track my movements because I published a photo of someone’s boobies, or MI6 because I wrote about Kate Middleton’s ass?

Fine, that’s enough of the scaremongering. I will be honest and say I don’t think that it’s all that bad. Information has always been gathered, evaluated, passed on and it always will be. Every single time you go shopping in the Real World your purchases are recorded: the credit or debit card company; the store; the wholesaler; the manufacturer. No names for most, but the information has been gathered. A tin of peas has been purchased, restock the shelves and order a new tin.

Are there any benefits to this mass gathering of information?

Well yes, yes there are. If a product isn’t popular it gets removed from sale. If a whole range of products suddenly go viral,  more are produced. If a web site suddenly falls in the ratings, it gets improved or it vanishes. If an advert gets no clicks at all, it needs to be re-evaluated and a new marketing strategy pounded out.

We, the people who are surfing through the Internet, are changing its features. Our surfing activity is the basis for what follows. We don’t have to press Like to show our appreciation, it is enough that the records say we stayed on a site for five minutes, read through an article, even if we don’t comment or purchase. We are showing the manufacturers, the advertisers, the service industry where our interests lie and they? They are going to have to tailor what they have on offer to meet our (silent) demands. We are shaping the future, just by being here. And that, I feel, is a good thing.

Even so, nearly eight hundred blocks on Facebook alone in so few hours? That kicks ass big time!

  • Viktoria Michaelis.

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  • P. Robie says:

    It’s not too different from chipping pets with GPS or using cell phones. I think that people who shop would rather see ads (if they have to see any) that are targeted toward things that they like or would be interested in. Gathering this information allows companies to do targeted versus blind marketing. It makes sense that they would use this to better focus their advertising dollars. In the end we all have a choice to use the internet for shopping, social networking, etc.. We also have the choice of not doing this and go back to conventional means.

    • viki says:

      Of course, but there are limits, and these limits are the focus of my second post – Who’s Following You? I have no problem with information being gathered as long as it is anonymous, as long as it is from a large and varied group. But when it comes down to individual information, entering the private sphere, then it gets serious and, in my opinion, dangerous.

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