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Do not track me

Amendments to the Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance will be effective on 1 April 2013.  Companies are required to notify their customers about using their personal data for direct marketing.   Citizens of Hong Kong received notification of this use from many companies in March.  They will be presumed to have given consent to such if objection is not raised in writing.   The Privacy Commissioner advised citizens to object, bringing out a wrong message that all such uses are evil.

We live in a society where everyone needs to depend on others on goods and services.  Thus information on goods and services are essential for us to make a considered choice.  All companies provide such information we call advertisement.  But there are so much of them and many are on goods and services we do not need.  So it is a better arrangement for the information to target customers in need of them instead of flooding the world with all of them.  To do so, companies may need to know who their customers are and what they want.  There is where personal data come into play.

The dichotomy of the work of the commercial world and personal privacy is hard to resolve.  A similar case is the tracking of web surfing data.  Companies track such data to improve the placement of advertisement but citizens do not want to be tracked.  In order to devise legislation on regulating such activities, the USA Federal Trade Commission brought privacy advocates and online advertising industry together to work out a compromise.  The discussion has been going on for over a year but there is no sign of any agreement.  IT World recently has an article on the situation which you may like to read in full.

Despite the wish to work out a compromise, any agreement reached would be less favourable for the companies than the present unregulated scenario.  The disagreement comes down to the basic definition of some common terms.  The article points out some essential points where there could be mistrust on both sides.

1. Redefining track

When we think of web tracking, we probably think of someone or something recording what we do as we browse a website.  When the online advertisement industry says track, they really mean “target advertisement based on your web surfing history.”  So when a network says you can opt out of tracking, they actually mean “you can elect to not see targeted advertisement”.  Information about you will still be collected and added to your profile.  Some data would be collected for the purpose of assessing the advertisement placed, but some may be collected for other reasons.

2. Redefining anonymity

Advertising companies claim that tracking data is collected anonymously.  Therefore the network cannot identify a person or match the web history to a real identity.  But that is not entirely true.  Anonymous tracking is not always anonymous.  A Stanford researcher who is a member of the do-not-track working group demonstrated on a few occasions that this is not so.  Another programmer who attempts to provide transparency into the world of web tracking acknowledged that “in certain cases, data may be combined with other sources to produce more detailed profiles.”

3. Redefining choice

When adding the Do-not-track option in Internet browsers, companies claim that they are enabling a choice for consumer.  It is only half-hearted, presuming web users do not easily choose this option.  When Microsoft includes in Internet Explorer 10 for the Do-not-track option to be turned on by default, many web designers simply ignore that setting.  And when Mozilla announced that it was thinking about blocking third-party cookies in Firefox, the advertising industry reacted fiercely, claiming it would be counterproductive for consumers and business.

4. Redefining free

A key argument on why tracking is necessary comes down to the advertising money which keeps some web companies going.  Without tracking, advertisers argue, the “free” web will cease to exist.  Some even claim that Do-not-track will ultimately kill free speech by putting web sites out of business.  This is certainly not the business models many websites are pursuing.  A free (free-of-charge) web is different from a free-speech web.

I think all these doubling talking may just be an illusion.  If you have a good understanding of how Internet browsing works, you will know that data exchange between the user and the website is a basic technical requirement.  For the two parties to interact, information request will need to be sent to the website, and the website must need to know where the information should be forwarded to.  Data exchange is a stream of bits of 1 and 0 moving in high speed.  Both ends will need to capture the data, store it in cache, and then process them and display them in the proper format.  Information stay in the cache, working area and in temporary files for quite some time in order to speed up the processing speed should the information be required again.  That means all sort of data, including personal data, browsing history, and preferred information are all tracked and stored by default.  The Do-not-track option may simply mean that the users are not alerted of their data being used.  What the privacy advocates should concern is how the companies make use of the personal data.