App and Search Engine Tracking: If You Aren’t Buying the Product, You are the Product

  A fair number of computer and smart phone users have become accustomed to getting things for free. We download apps, software, and games, and we don’t often stop to wonder why someone would work hard to develop something and then give it away – or maybe we do wonder but we eventually end up convincing ourselves that the developers are compensated by the people who buy the paid version or advertisers or something.

Well this may be true, in a sense, but maybe not the way that you’re imagining. Smartphones and laptops have certainly come a long way in a short period of time – so far, in fact, that their capabilities probably exceed their owners’ understandings in a lot of cases. We know that our phones can route us to the nearest ATM and that our search engines can generate localized results, but what else can they do? Well for starters they can track everywhere you go, every site you visit, and everything you download.

This capability, in and of itself, doesn’t mean much – just like my capability to play great basketball doesn’t mean much when no one picks me for his team, but with the right software installed, or the right guy doing the picking, the consequences can be surprising, like my J

I was researching payment processors a couple of weeks ago, and now, like magic, half of the sites I visit have ads for payment processing services. Before that, it was bulk USB drives, and before that, vinyl banners. This particular tracking of my

browsing behavior was done by google.  Google claims that the data is only sold to advertisers in an “anonymized” form, but if these ads are being targeted at my computer specifically, which they are, then they are using my IP, so the data is as anonymous as my IP. Only a naïve computer user believes his IP is truly anonymous. And if for some reason you become a person of interest with some law enforcement or investigative agency, your internet browsing habits and tracked whereabouts will be on someone’s desk with your name attached.

Google Buzz, the company’s original answer to Facebook, ended up getting torpedoed by privacy activists. The program watched your emails and conversations to “connect” you with people you know, but it also displayed the people you were affiliated with for the whole world to see.

Apple, Pandora,, and The Weather Channel, among others, were sued in 2010 for unauthorized tracking of smartphone user activity without adequate consent or disclosure. Wired magazine reported at the time that the makers of smartphones assign each device with a UDID (Unique Device Identifier) which cannot be changed or deleted like a tracking cookie, so once an app forwards this number to an advertiser, the advertiser can then track the user and her behavior indefinitely. Some people (including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit) apparently thought this was a step too far.

In 2008, Dr. Alex Pentland of MIT tested an app/algorithm combination that monitored the behavior of a test group over a period of weeks. The algorithm was “so predictive that during the US presidential elections in 2008, it was…capable of working out that two people were talking politics when the content of the conversation wasn’t known. In other tests it spotted changes in behaviour that suggested someone was coming down with influenza, which they later did” (PC Plus: Millionaire Hackers: How Cybercrime Works, Kindle Locations 503-505).

There are a fair number of Americans who say, “so what? I don’t do anything wrong, so why do I care if an app tracks me and tries to predict my behavior.” There is some truth to this

for most of the population. Ultimately we will see some customized ads and search results, or maybe a specific selection of articles in our favorite online paper, but that will be it. Maybe only a few dozen people in the whole country will end up having their lives dissected by someone who has obtained a court order for google and their phone service providers to turn over everything they have on them.  But what else might happen?

Millionaire Hackers recalls how JP Martin of Canadian Tire discovered, by researching customer credit card records, that customers who bought felt pads for their furniture were more likely to make their payments than customers who bought skull accessories for their cars. Apparently American auto insurance companies have also determined that individuals with lower credit scores have more accidents than individuals with higher credit scores. So if insurance companies can base premiums on credit scores, what is stopping companies from purchasing our behavioral records from phone and software companies to make decisions about other things like, for instance, who to hire, fire, or promote? Your phone knows where you’ve been, after all. Maybe your next employer might be interested in how much time you spend at the bar, or whether you visit High Times online. Employers already feel entitled to look at credit records. Browsing behavioral records seems only a small step away.

So it seems that this type of behavioral analysis may already be affecting a significant number of us, whether we are being investigated or not. In defense of the developers, it is not fair when users feel they are entitled to the free use of their products when the products are not free. Everyone deserves to be compensated for his work. But it is also is not fair to users to have their information secretly bought and sold on a pseudo-black market, or even for each of us to have to obtain a law degree and read a 20 page user agreement to try to discover if the next app we download is going to be spying on us for profit.

Hopefully engaged consumer groups and responsible companies will be able to collaborate to create some acceptable middle-ground for everyone, but based on the growing use of credit data, it seems that the smart money is on the balance tipping in favor of large corporations.


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Security software for the Windows Operating System. Based in Ohio, U.S.
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