The March of Marketing Surveillance

trojan horse Neither recession nor depression shall slow the spread of corporate marketing’s Census-dwarfing surveillance on American households.

For those tracking this inexorable totalitarian phenomenon, The Wall Street Journal has been running a useful series. For those who know the institutional reasons, the main pattern is entirely unsurprising:

The [WSJ] conducted a comprehensive study that assesses and analyzes the broad array of cookies and other surveillance technology that companies are deploying on Internet users. It reveals that the tracking of consumers has grown both far more pervasive and far more intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.

Unauthorized placement of spyware is large:

The study found that the nation’s 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred.

It is also increasingly powerful:

Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive. Monitoring used to be limited mainly to “cookie” files that record websites people visit. But the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves even after users try to delete them. These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock-market-like exchanges that have sprung up in the past 18 months.

“It is a sea change in the way the industry works,” says Omar Tawakol, CEO of BlueKai. “Advertisers want to buy access to people, not Web pages.”

Interestingly, it is also another very powerful argument in favor of public enterprise and nationalization of our communications infrastructure. Wikipedia, a non-profit, somehow manages to thrive without planting any spy code.

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Another crucial point: many “social networking” services (blog comment service providers like Disqus) are fostering the placement of tracking cookies because you cannot register for a user ID without enabling third-party cookies. The pitch is that you can read someone’s comments across several blogs; the catch is once you have third-party cookies enabled you are toast, but they don’t mention that. At the moment browsers like Firefox don’t allow you to discriminate among third-party cookies without a great deal of extra legwork. Blogger (owned by Google) is another example — you can’t comment at a lot of Blogger blogs without… Read more »