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Privacy in the Digital Age - Up a Clickstream Without a Paddle

So, privacy. That's kinda an important thing right now. As we go around the internets we leave all sorts of information about ourselves online. That information is valuable. No, I mean really valuable. Even if you don't submit your personal information (like name, or address) to a website you are still leaving providing private information just by visiting a site. Don't believe me? Look at this press release from hitwise about real estate. Notice anything? Like how visits to real estate sites are a leading indicator of home purchasing behavior. Yeah, your visits to sites, or "clickstream" is a predictor of what you think about and what you are planning to do. Looking for a house - you visit a real estate site. Looking for a new job - you visit a job site. Looking get it. Your clickstream is a mirror of you - even without personal information associated with it.

Big Evil Google

What is the company that concerns you most when it comes to privacy? It's GOOGLE right? Man, their search is so good. Their search is good and their information awareness is so strong and not only do they have my clickstream (cause I only find sites through their site and they know what I click) now they also have my email, spreadsheets & text documents, blog, photos, credit cards & address - shoot, they have everything too. Organized. Segmented. Cross referenced. Searchable. Um, yikes.

Privacy of your clickstream

But when you visit those sites they don't know who you are, do that? Well, take another look at that HitWise report. Notice how it's segmented by income levels? They can also segment by geographic distribution and probably a hundred other characteristics. How do they do that when the visits are mostly anonymous? Simple: clickstream + ISP data = total privacy meltdown. So, your ISP knows you. Like, really well. They know your name, your address, your credit rating, your previous addresses. They also connect you to all of those sites that are in your clickstream, so they can associate that data with your name, address, credit rating, etc. Scared yet? What's more, not only can they do it, they are doing it. Yeah. Your ISP (probably) records every site you visit and associates it with marketing/demographic information about you. And then they sell it. It's almost so spooky tinfoil hat like that I'm surprised I'm saying it. But if you want to be scared about where your information goes, this is a concern.

Who is going to respect my privacy more?

So, now that we're all scared about 1) Google - or any other search/vertical 2) our ISP which one concerns us more. Well, it's whichever one has a better history of protecting that data. Personally, I'm scared about all of them. My ISP is definitely rolling over whenever the government calls them. And HitWise shows that the ISPs are selling our data. I only hope the the ISP is properly anonymizing the data before sharing it with companies like HitWise, though I imagine they aren't. In terms of the government, well, you can bet that the data doesn't get anonymized before it goes to them, so that's pretty horrible.

Now what about Google (and the other search engines). Well, Matt Cutts just wrote up a real nice post about how Google is probably the best bet in terms of protecting our privacy at this point. Reactively - when the DOJ wanted all of Google's data - they have protected the data. Proactively - in anonymizing our clickstreams after 24 months - they are protecting it.

Given all this, any concern or dislike towards Google over other search engines or over your ISP as an "evil" database of your private data is pretty misplaced. If you're concerned about Google's use of your data - call your ISP and see what they admit to selling/handing over to the government. That's the real concern.

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Internet privacy

Internet privacy is much different than regular privacy. Normally if you don't want someone to see you doing something, you would simply refrain from doing it in public. The problem is that there really isn't a private place on the internet. It seems like there should be, but for now there just isn't.

Holy cow this is weird. I had

Holy cow this is weird. I had never thought about how they are able to keep track of my clickstream. This is kinda freaky. The previous comment makes a good point about how nothing is private on the internet. When we click on sites we are doing so through hosts and these hosts can track what we're doing. In real life when we do private things we generally do them independently of other people and thus they cannot be recorded for others to read. I though the internet was the best for me to turn for matters of privacy but now I'm concerned that it's one of the worst. I do like Google though. Do you think Google would ever disclosee or sell this information?