Gathering of Information: The Silent Spies in the Internet and in Telecommunications

Anyone who is regularly online will have seen it more than once, if they’re really interested in Social Media Networking, they’ll have seen it tens of times over the last few years: Big Brother. Stories, articles, essays and a whole mess of scaremongering about what happens each and every time a person logs onto the Internet. Someone, somewhere is watching over them, peeking over their shoulder and following each and every move whilst they are surfing. They know what has been purchased on Amazon, what is searched for on Google, each status update on Facebook and Twitter. The curtains may have been drawn and the door locked, but no one is ever alone on the Internet.

In Europe and the United States 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. Much has been written about Facebook and Google gathering information, and there have been many diverging opinions: the information is entered voluntarily, so be it! It is, however, much more than that.

The Internet is the biggest potential marketplace ever. The discussions might be about markets such as China and the United States, about emerging markets and First and Third World markets but 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 anyone’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.

Most of the information being gathered is harmless. It is information individuals have entered themselves – such as by Facebook – and it is information on what is needed, desired or enjoyed – such as by Google, Yahoo, Bing and any other search engine one might care to mention. It is information about what has bought – where else can Amazon get its recommendations from other than from individual buying habits?

And the rest of the information?

The rest is a gathering of individual surfing habits. Which web sites have been visited and how long has the visitor stayed there? Where did they come from and where did they go? Which page did they land on and which search words did they use to get there?

What would happen if a single person or a company could use all this technology at their fingertips to see what each person does on other sites? What if they could set up a little bit of spying software on another site and see whether someone visits when that site has no other connection to them?

This has happened here from the moment a link was made to this site. Not in a bad way, but everyone visiting this page has been checked by others. They’ve been checked by Google (Google Analytics), by Alexa, by Facebook. Even if the visitor doesn’t have a Facebook account, they’ve been checked and the visit logged.

Why and how?

Why. Facebook is a site which gathers all manner of information to advance its own advertising strategy. A person doesn’t need to be registered for Facebook to want to know what interests them, to be able to build up a global picture of what is popular and what is on the way out. Each time there is a Facebook symbol on a web site, even if no one presses Like, they’ve been seen, their visit has been noted. The page has loaded in a browser and the Like button has been loaded direct from Facebook.

How do webmasters know when others are hot linking to their photographs and images? The visit, on another web site, has been logged and, eventually, evaluated.

And when a person thinks that they’ve only been surfing safe sites? Think again.

A few days ago I installed a new tracking checker on my personal 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+ and a few sites with adult content. The result after only two days, that is perhaps seven or eight hours of actual surfing from one web site to another, was seven hundred and sixty-eight hits by Facebook alone.

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 an individual is. They can’t put a name to their activities, or a face. That is, unless they happen to be logged in to Facebook while surfing elsewhere. Unless they happen to still have the Facebook cookie saved in their computer cache. Facebook and others can see where a person is on the Internet, where they’ve been, which country they are in and, probably, also which area from the IP address, but they don’t know who an individual is.

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 a person’s features can be recognized from afar and advertising is adapted to their needs, their interests. At the moment it is all limited to offers made when someone log into the web sites of their choice and based upon the information they’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, the visitor. 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 which cannot be avoided. 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, or you and decided to track our movements because a web site visited published a photo of someone, or MI6 because there is a comment posted about Kate Middleton’s figure?

Enough of the scaremongering. To be honest and there is not a great deal about this gathering of information that’s all that bad. Information has always been gathered, evaluated, passed on and it always will be. Every single time someone goes shopping in the Real World their purchases are recorded: the credit or debit card company; the store; the wholesaler; the manufacturer. No names in most instances, 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?

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.

The people who are surfing through the Internet are changing its features with each click of their mouse. Their surfing activity is the basis for what follows. A visitor to any web site doesn’t have to press Like to show appreciation, it is enough that the records show they stayed on a site for five minutes, read through an article, even if they didn’t comment or purchase. The visit alone is showing the manufacturers, the advertisers, the service industry where interest lie with the result that they are going to have to tailor what they have on offer to meet our (silent) demands. We, the Internet users, are shaping the future, just by being here. And that can only be a good thing.

Even so, nearly eight hundred blocks on Facebook alone in so few hours?

I have written so far about the marketing strategies of various Internet web sites, of advertising and the collection of data from individual visits to web sites while surfing through the Internet. Now I wish to take it one step further following an announcement by the German telecommunications company O2, a daughter firm of the Spanish telecommunications company Telefónica.

The collection of information through Internet sites, as illustrated above, is simple, cheap and effective. An Internet user surfs to a web site of interest and his or her movements through the web are logged, collected and evaluated by a whole range of different tracking devices, from spy software through cookies, links to social media networks and search engines or analytical tools. But what about the general movements of a person during their daily lives? Is it possible to follow a specific person, or a group of people, as they move through a city? Is it possible to collate the information gained from these movements and come up with an overall picture which might be useful to marketing companies, to advertisers, to the marketplace in general?

It is a well known and accepted fact that people who use modern smart phones, as well as older versions, can be tracked. The mobile telephone needs to be in constant contact with a transmission device, a node or similar, so that it is available should the user wish to telephone out or to receive calls from other people. As long as the mobile device is switched on it sends and receives a signal which places it within a certain area, within reach of a communications point to retain this high level of connectivity. A person moving through the streets of Berlin, New York, London, Paris or any other modern city as well as all minor cities, smaller towns, villages and the countryside with a mobile device is constantly followed by these connection signals as long as their device is switched on. Information on their position may, with the right technology, quickly be collected and, in the case of an emergency for example, directed to the appropriate authorities, even without the use of a Global Positioning System (GPS).

The German telecommunications company O2 is investigating the possibilities of using this information on the movement of individuals for marketing purposes. Being able to watch the movements of an individual or a group as they travel from one shop to another within a major city, or from one position to another on longer journeys, can give information about where the most interest in a town lies, where the shops and stores have the best pull and even, with finer tuning, how long a person remains in one position, in one shop or store.

Not, in and of itself, too much of a problem until you take it to the next step in the process.

Couple the information on a person’s movements with further information, such as age and gender, and it is possible to build up a very accurate picture of the movements and interests of a group of people within a certain age group – such as young women aged between 18 and 24. The necessary information is already there, voluntarily given by the customer during the process of buying or renting a mobile telephone. Date of birth, address, gender and, in some cases, income and educational levels are all included in the basic application process for a contract between telecommunications company and customer.

Here, because of the sudden lack of anonymity, we come into a gray area as far as data protection is concerned, and a potential earner for the telecommunications industry. Combine the information with actual sales, with positioning in an entertainment area of a city or the main shopping street, and it is possible to build up an individual picture of each and every person using a mobile device at any time of the day or night. Here we are verging on the private sphere, the gathering of information which can be narrowed down to a specific person.

What is the difference between an individual person using the Internet and being tracked and an individual using a mobile device?

With Internet tracking there may well be several hundred people using a connection point into the Internet, an IP address linked to an Internet Service Provider, at any one time. With mobile device tracking the link is direct to a specific mobile phone, to a specific person who has purchased or rented this device. It is possible to link directly to a name and an address without needing to go any further along the chain, without needing to find out who was using a specific IP at a certain time and then checking their communications protocol or whereabouts at the time of connection. It is possible to track movements without the person being tracked actually being active, without them having logged into the Internet or even making a telephone call.

With further innovations in the smart phone market, such as video devices, payment for services through a smart chip, it is possible to trace their every movement right down to the items they may purchase in any given store, even a parking ticket purchased through an appropriate application on their mobile phone. It is possible to see how long they remain in one area, where they move to and how much they have spent.

For the gathering of information with marketing potential, this is an absolute goldmine. For the individual, the mobile device owner, it is an incursion into their private sphere, into their daily lives.

This form of market information gathering is not music for the future; the first steps have already been taken by O2 in Germany. Information is already available and is constantly being added to each time a person switches their mobile device on. It is only a matter of time before the true potential of this information source is recognized and, data protection laws allowing, becomes common practice.

This form of gathering, of tracking is, according to many professional and civil rights organizations, one step too far. As long as the information gathered comes from a large group and cannot be traced back to an individual it is relatively harmless. With the mobile device potential, the move towards a Minority Report style society is far closer than anyone would wish to believe and, in all probability, far closer than anyone is prepared to accept.

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