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Digital Privacy: Who is Tracking you online?

by Eric Friske, UMN Law Student, MJLST Managing Editor

Thumbnail-Eric-Friske.jpgFrom one mouse click to the next, internet users knowingly and unknowingly leave a vast array of online data points that reveal something about those users' identities and preferences. These digital footprints are collected and exploited by websites, advertisers, researchers, and other parties for a multitude of commercial and non-commercial purposes. Despite growing awareness by users that their online activities do not simply evaporate into the ether, many people are unaware of the extent to which their actions may be visible, collected, or used without their knowledge.

Scholars Omer Tene and Jules Polontensky, in their article "To Track or 'Do Not Tract': Advancing Transparency and Individual Control in Online Behavioral Advertising," discusses the various online tracking technologies that have been used by industries to document and analyze these digital footprints, and argue that policymakers should be addressing the underlying value question regarding the benefits of online data usage and its inherent privacy costs.

With each new technological advance that seeks to make us more connected with the world around us, our daily lives and our online presence have become increasingly intertwined. Ordinary users have become more aware that their online activities lacks the anonymity that they once thought existed. However, despite this awareness, many users may not know what personal information is available online, how it got there, or how to prevent it. Moreover, some tracking services are undertaking efforts to prevent users from evading them, even when those users intentionally attempt to keep their online activities private.

Corporations have begun to recognize the importance of providing consumers with the opportunity to choose what information they wish to share while on the internet. For example, last May, Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer 10 will have a "Do Not Track" flag on by default, stating that it believes "consumers should have more control over how information about their online behavior is tracked, shared and used." Not unexpectedly, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a global non-profit trade association for the online advertising industry, denounced Microsoft's move as "a step backwards in consumer choice;" although, some have argued that these pervasive tracking practices are actually robbing individuals of free choice. It should perhaps be noted that the popular internet browser Firefox already possesses a Do Not Track feature, though it is not engage by default, and Google has stated that it will include Do Not Track support for Chrome by the end of the year.

Regardless, while academic and political discussions on how to address these concerns continue to simmer, internet users who desire privacy must learn how to protect themselves in an online environment replete with corporations that are relentlessly trying scavenge every morsel of information they leave behind, something which may not be an easy task when tracking is so prevalent.