Network: Tracking your every move

Every time you visit a website, the chances are that someone is building a profile of your surfing habits. By Stephen McLaren
Click to follow
A few months ago, GeoCities, the American mega-website host, was discovered to be passing on users' personal details to a marketing company. Data in the electronic world is notoriously promiscuous, but what rankled was that GeoCities made itself out to be a guardian of personal privacy, even sporting a logo for the TRUSTe internet privacy consortium. Instead, GeoCities followed the money and put customers' details up for hire.

Although this is far from likely to be the last example of a website selling on client data, it has concentrated minds on what is becoming of the identities we carry around with us online. On the one hand, privacy advocates say that everything we do online should be anonymous and private unless we explicitly say otherwise, whereas those trying to make money on the Net believe our online identity is a commodity to be negotiated for, bought and sold.

The targeting of adverts and other marketing material at web users is key. Up until now, we've all been fairly anonymous on the web; of course, site tracking software and "cookies" have enabled fairly crude identification, but typically, unless you give detailed information - say, over the dreaded registration forms - you're still fairly anonymous. However, some companies are now out to change that. Tracking, profiling and targeting are e-commerce industry buzzwords and it doesn't take a genius to work out that they are the hunters and you are lunch.

Carlton Online is the first British company to use ad-targeting technology from the Massachusetts-based Engage Technologies. Carlton have recently launched three publishing sites, Jamba (games), Popcorn (films) and Simplyfood, with each one hungrily on the lookout for advertisers and eyeballs.

Advertisers, however, are notorious web-sceptics - few people bother to click on banner adverts and account managers never find out who does unless specifically told. Carlton is offering advertisers a new deal: it claims the technology from Engage allows it to match adverts to the kind of people who might be interested in them. Philip Rooke, Carlton Online's sales manager, is relishing the prospect.

"Targeting is important for sites like ours which are very high traffic and which, in the case of Jamba, have everyone from children to retired people playing," Rooke says. "With Engage, we get better results, picking the right groups for the right campaigns."

So how is it done? Well, Engage has cultivated a monster database of web users - around a third of everyone online, and growing - tracking their point-and-clicking through sport, news, games, porn and anything else that takes their fancy. With this knowledge, Engage's technology creates and continually updates a behavioural profile which is split into more than 800 categories. Using the database, Carlton Online knows, for instance, that when Joe Blow plays a game on Jamba, it has a football- obsessed, middle-aged man from Birmingham online. When combined with Engage's Ad-Manager software, Carlton can provide the editorial content Joe would like, but, just as important, feed him adverts relating to footie, pensions and Brum.

Before you get too spooked-out, Engage insists it never collects information which might identify an individual, such as name or place of residence, although that would be entirely possible should a competitor decide to do so.

Engage's profiling and ad targeting is merely one example of how big business is panning for gold in a fast-moving data stream, but there are a host of others out there all trying to either elicit information from you in return for benefits (the loyalty card model) or using existing consumer databases from credit reference agencies. According to a survey of 25 top online merchants by Jupiter Communications, 40 per cent say they have begun to offer personalised services - and that means they need to know who you are.

Zero Knowledge Systems (ZKS) is a Canadian company which believes that all web tracking and profiling without express consent is an infringement of your right to privacy. It is offering to make you anonymous and invisible on the web via its Freedom Network. Austin Hill, ZKS's founder, remains unconvinced that big business will respect an individual's privacy.

"Most profiling and tracking companies say, `trust us, we won't abuse your privacy'. We've seen how that failed with GeoCities. We don't believe in privacy based on good faith."

The Freedom network offers complete anonymity online. Tracking is impossible, cookies are ineffectual, no one but no one can work out what you like or dislike. That is because ZKS offers to re-route all your Internet movements through a series of servers which strip all identifying information, and uses strong encryption to leave your online identity untouched and unsullied. More than that, ZKS will provide you with a series of online pseudonyms which you can use to craft the identity of your choosing.

"Four out of the five organisations on the board of P3P, the web's main initiative for privacy, are ad-profiling companies. We think that privacy is something that you can't barter away and so we wanted to be the first company to invest in a complete privacy system," Hill says. "Now the cat- and-mouse game between Net user and marketing companies becomes pointless, as it is impossible to be profiled and traced through the Freedom Network."

As with Engage, plenty of other companies are offering similar services to ZKS. Kevin Kelly, a founder of Wired magazine and author of New Rules for the New Economy, believes the reason for the anonymity backlash is the imbalance between who knows what about whom.

"Privacy is an opportunity for a relationship, it's not something to be snuck around," Kelly says. "One of the dissatisfactions with online commerce is that businesses know about us, but we know nothing about them. There is no symmetry in the relationship. We want to be connected, but we need more transparency about who knows what about us."

Ironically, it is in the non-web world where most information on our habits and preferences is still gathered. A mixture of credit reference companies, direct-marketeers and supermarkets know much more about our spending habits, our finances and our demographics than even the best dataminer on the web. Now that's scary.

Zero Knowledge Systems ( Engage Technologies ( Carlton Online (