Thomas Edison’s visitors, so the story goes, had to push hard to open his front gate: he was using their energy to pump water up to his house. This “crowdsourcing” his water supply was a trivial exploitation and might even have benefitted his visitors by helping them (ever so slightly) stay in shape. Your visits, whether you know it or not, also pump water for a bunch of “Edisons” every day, and it’s not clear that you’ll regard this exploitation as entirely harmless.
I’m speaking, of course, of your visits to websites. And the “Edisons” in question here are typically businesses that collect information about what interests consumers and potential consumers.
Each time you visit most commercial websites, your browser is engaged to contribute data to a server somewhere, often the server of the site you’re visiting, but more often the computer of a company that’s struck a deal with the website you’re visiting. This all happens sub rosa and quite out of our awareness—strictly machine to machine. But there’s a way to surface this traffic and to learn about who wants what from you.
Ghostery is a free browser plugin that works with all the majors: Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera and IE. Once installed, it pops up a temporary and tiny window when you visit a site, showing all the “bugs” that are seeking—and taking—data from your browser. If you’re curious as to who’s behind these calls on your data, Ghostery will give you a more stable window setting things out in considerable detail. So, for example, when I visit cnn.com, Ghostery informs me that the entities in the image to the right have acquired some data from me. More information from Ghostery explains that DoubleClick DART is a Google company that helps advertising companies trace the impact of their campaigns; to do that, it harvested my IP address and such things as my browser type, language settings, page views, and the time and date of my visit to CNN. There is no information on how long DoubleClick DART retains such information.
As the Ghostery report points out, most of this data is anonymous. There’s no information on what some peepers, such as Dynamic Logic, collect, though. However, it’s unlikely that unless a login is involved my browser could be made to disgorge personal data.
But my IP address is almost always taken and it is, as Ghostery puts it, “pseudonymous,” meaning that though it doesn’t point directly to me personally, it may provide enough information to enable the curious to track me down. It’s this “pseudonymous” link to the other data that’s most likely to bother people.
The privacy implications of all this “harvesting” are uncertain. I imagine that a determined person or agency with access to a lot of data could isolate my individual behaviour eventually; and that’s faintly disquieting, even if I only visit boring and ordinary websites. For those involved in high-stakes enterprises, any such leakage might be too much. Ghostery offers you the opportunityt to block unwanted data harvesting of this sort, though I’ve no idea how certain they can be of success in this. So if you find the notion of businesses snooping on your browsing habits unpleasant, you might give Ghostery a go.
Finally, it’s got to be pointed out that Ghostery itself sets no “bugs”—at least according to its own plugin. Slaw, however, does aid in the collection of data as a trade-off for using the Add This function at the bottom of each post, and via Google Analytics, which tells us who’s reading what on our site.
Oh, and the Edison story? Entirely apochryphal, as you might have guessed.