Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Privacy is a case of respect

Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Privacy is a case of respect
Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Privacy is a case of respect

The availability of personalised data to marketers should be the least of consumers' worries.

Facebook is now the CIA's most successful intelligence-gathering programme, with Congress recently voting to boost funding for it at the expense of other initiatives. The agency can't believe its luck, as people are readily prepared to divulge where they live, provide alphabetised lists of their friends, personal email addresses, phone numbers and status updates of what they're doing, when, thus saving the government millions.

So reports satirical website The Onion (onion.com/e3Tssd), picking up on wider concerns that we're placing our private lives in the hands of both commercial organisations and governments. Can we trust them? Should we? Have we any choice? Is it even possible to remain anonymous?

You would probably start by using an anonymous proxy server, allowing you to surf the web via a third-party identity mask. Of course, it is safe to assume that the government (or GCHQ) has set a few of these up as honeytraps, to lure us in so it can covertly monitor our behaviour.

Of course, you won't use Google, and if you're even moderately paranoid, even Scroogle, which claims to anonymise your Google searches.

So you're sitting in a car, using an open wi-fi access point, preferably at a distance that requires a specialist antenna (don't even think of using a credit card to buy one). That the networks are compromised is beyond obvious, so you've never used that wi-fi point before, and you won't again. You won't be using an ordinary copy of Windows, which records everything you do on the hard disk. Instead, you'll use a version of Linux that boots directly from the CD. You'll spoof your MAC address, the identifier for your machine, and use a different one each time.

Borrowing from spooks, you will have developed a 'legend', an entirely separate identity from your own. You will never use this computer to access anything under your own identity, because even the most junior nerd could then connect your online identities. Lastly, to avoid being picked up by a profiling exercise, you will vary your access means and behaviours randomly and encrypt your communications before sending them, using a programme that hopefully wasn't developed with a backdoor for the CIA.

All of which is inconvenient if all you want to do is buy a book, or find out what's on at the cinema. This is why most people have given up on the idea of privacy, and perhaps why they are so cavalier with it. But it's an important issue. Not all governments are as friendly as ours ; not all companies are legit, and even if they are, their employees could simply be incompetent, allowing crooks access to our details.

The question of opt-in or opt-out of behaviourally targeted advertising is a red herring. Because unless you're prepared to go back to cash, lose the mobile and follow the above procedure every time you want to send an email, there is no opt-out from the people we should really be concerned about.

It's a formally accepted fact; here's a link to the guides for how Yahoo! and others share user data with law enforcement, together with the prices they levy for this - bit.ly/hZoyip.

For marketers, respect for privacy and the security of our customers' data is fundamental to earning and retaining their trust. Consumers know they can't avoid sharing their data with us, but also that they get value in return; so making sure the balance works in their favour should be our constant focus.

Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist

30 SECONDS ON ... online data

- Google claims it will not collect, sell or share personally identifying information from ad-serving cookies without users' explicit consent.

- It serves ads on its own sites through its AdWords programme and on partner sites through AdSense.

- AdWords tracks the subject matter of users' search.

- The Gmail filtering system for spam also scans for keywords in users' emails, which are then used to match and serve ads.

- Yahoo! uses recently visited pages, viewed ads and searches to create interest categories.

- It doesn't share interest categories with other advertisers or websites, but shows ads to people who match characteristics highlighted by advertisers.

- Users cannot opt out entirely from Yahoo! ads, but can edit their interest categories.

- Advertising cookies used by Bing have an expiry date of no more than two years.

- Data collected to create personalised ads will not directly identify the user.

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