Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Beware - The Sneaky Bots Are Everywhere

Every time I write about privacy and security on the internet I get a whole bunch of people who accuse me of paranoia. They maintain I am looking for conspiracy theories and that if you have nothing to hide, then why worry who is following you on the internet. Besides which, I've been told, as consumers we have always been followed and our preferences noted.

That is correct. However, if I have a company counting how many toothpastes of a certain manufacturer have been bought, then that is fairly harmless. To actually determine who in particular bought that toothpaste some companies, in the past, have had to send out students with clipboards and lengthy questionnaires to find out who was buying what.

Not anymore. Now the internet, with its sneaky robots, or bots as they are called, is following everything you do. And you don't know about it. More than anything else, it's the secretiveness of the whole exercise that is so scary. It has nothing to do with whether we have anything to hide. It has everything to do with the fact that there is some information about ourselves we just don't want to share unknowingly.

This kind of unease is confirmed when one reads articles such as the one on Computerworld yesterday. It discusses the fact that customers taking part in a marketing program launched by Sears, Roebuck and Co and Kmart Corp may be 'unintentionally' providing the retailer with extensive personal information.

The My SHC Community program is only just shy of contravening the USA Federal Trade commission standards with respect to tracking personal data. Harvard Business School's Assistant Professor Ben Edelman states that this particular software is not something you'd want on your computer, or in fact on anybody else's computer.

The critical issue here is that this particular, supposedly harmless, application tracks every site you go to. It checks every search you make, every product you buy, every product you look at even if you don't buy it. This includes such sensitive sites as your account on your bank's site. It also sniffs through e-mail headers.

All of this collected data is sent through to an Internet measurement firm called comScore Inc. Of course My SHC Community states that members of the site have the option not to participate and do not need to instal the tracking software.

That sort of statement presupposes that every member knows how to avoid signing up for it. And as one has heard in the past, sometimes it gets quite complicated to avoid participation. See what Facebook's Beacon originally did to members.

Then it is all hidden behind the rather benign word of 'research'. I think what really worries me, is not the fact that our activities are so minutely followed on the internet. In fact, I really have nothing to hide.

The huge problem is that I don't trust people anymore. I don't trust that a CEO won't mine all of the data for the benefit of his company. If he can get away with it, he will. It's the fact that companies have to post profits for their shareholders that makes for scrupulous senior management or the fact that the CEO will pocket a huge bonus if he posts good profits.

Whatever the reason behind the kind of unethical, cheating and lying style of business practice in use in the global economy nowadays, it is at the expense of the consumer - the ordinary person. That's all of us. We have to be protected against this kind of greed. The sooner relevant legislation is passed in all countries, the better.

Anja Merret lives in Brighton, UK, having moved across from South Africa just over a year ago.

She now looks after the business interests of her daughter who is a Flash Developer and Accessibility expert. She started a blog at the beginning of the year under the heading of chatting to my generation. Although she is chatting to the baby boomer generation, she sometimes feels that all generations have the same issues to face, they just don't have hearing aids or walking sticks!

One of her pet peeves is the war in Iraq and in fact anything that causes innocent people to get hurt. But she also loves tech stuff, although only as an amateur. She considers herself a Silver Surfer Gadget Geek. She is even considering queuing for an iPhone in the UK later on in the year. But her daughter has offered, so she will only be taking hot food to the Brighton Geeks waiting in line.

Her musings may be found on Her observations on personal power and self-development may be found on

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