The companies that want your web surfing data -- search engines, advertisers, anyone who wants to sell you stuff -- reap a bonanza off of one simple fact: most of us don't turn that data spigot off. We can, but we don't. The default setting on web browsers allows web sites to track your searches and clicks.
But Microsoft is throwing a wrench into that cozy arrangement. In the upcoming version of Windows, Internet Explorer will have its "Do Not Track" feature turned on by default. This is big.
“When [people] go to websites, their web browser is automatically going to be telling all those websites that this user doesn't want to be tracked,” says Lorrie Cranor, associate professor of computer science and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “When the websites receive that message, what they're supposed to do is to not collect information about what the user has been doing at the website, and using it to target ads."
Do we users have anything to lose from opting out of tracking?
“If you want to see ads that are more likely to appeal to you, if you opt out of tracking, then you're not going to get that,” Cranor says. “You're more likely to get generic ads, or all the ads for diet pills…If you want to stop seeing belly fat and hair loss ads, and get something that you might actually be interested in, then let them find out what you're interested in.”
The default setting really does matter: Cranor says research at Carnegie Mellon has found the vast majority of people have no idea how to manipulate the privacy settings on their web browsers.
It’s one thing for a user like you or me to say, through our browser, "don't track me." What the web site on the other end actually does in response is another story. Researcher Jonathan Mayer at Stanford says the so-called "Do Not Track" standard is a subject of hot debate right now.
“There's an important distinction between what companies have committed to so far and what advocates and researchers have been calling for with ‘Do Not Track,’” says Mayer. “Companies have committed so far to stop showing ads based on your browsing history -- the sites you go to. They have not committed yet to stop actually collecting your browsing history. That actually seems pretty backwards to me; they're keeping the thing that has the privacy problem and getting rid of the thing that might have some economic value.”
Here's something way overdue for a technological upgrade:
A startup called Lifesquare thinks personal barcodes are a much better way to do things. You give them your medical history and emergency contacts, they send you a bunch of stickers with a QR code: those same square bar codes you see on ads in buses or magazines. Lifesquare's Crystal Ciancutti says for starters, people should stick one on their wallet and one on the fridge: "They can also put them on personal items. So, it might be a bike helmet, and iPod, a phone, a walker or cane for our senior members."
So you're out cold, but paramedics with a special iPhone app can scan your sticker and instantly know your vital details. It's all up and running as a pilot in Marin County, California (see video below). Pretty nifty.
And who pays for this life-saving service when it comes to your town? Lifesquare says they can't say yet.