Today, most companies with a web presence, like Twitter, are tracking users to better understand behavior or collect data for marketing. That is why Twitter's do-not-track offering might have come as a surprise to some. The announcement rang especially loud as it came just days before the IPO of Facebook, a company that's built its empire on collecting personal data from millions of users.
Did you know the name "cookie" comes from a comparison to an unopened fortune cookie because of the hidden information inside? Cookies are probably the most common tracking mechanism, designed to understand more about what any given website visitor is doing.
It is important to note that cookies are not software -- they lack software-like functionality and installation, so in essence you can't program them. What they do contain are unique identifiers linked to an event and or person who created the event.
In many cases, different types of cookies are used simultaneously to provide specific functionality to the web visitor or website operator: recalling preferences, shopping cart history, or log-in information for easier access.
The most common use of a cookie is a stored user ID, a technique used by Amazon. When you order a book, for example, you fill out a form with your name and address. Amazon assigns an ID and stores your information in its database on the server. The ID is then sent to your browser as a cookie and stored on your hard disk. The next time you go to Amazon, the server looks you up by your ID and the web page sent back is customized to some degree.
As cookies have recently come under fire for perceived privacy concerns, many online companies have begun to opt for other types of tracking technologies such as ETags and device fingerprinting, and privacy professionals and legislators have begun to look at how controls can be given to online consumers. These controls, such as do-not-track offerings, allow users to manually opt in or out of having their information used or, as we say, processed.
As a privacy professional and consumer, I find the news of Twitter's do-not-track feature encouraging -- but also a bit confusing. As stated above, tracking mechanisms are generally used to identify someone in relation to their preferences and personal identifiable information.
By now, I'm hoping that you're asking yourself how that can be dangerous to anyone. That's what has me wondering. Don't get me wrong -- I'm glad for Twitter's willingness to give users choice and hyper-transparency about data collection practices, no matter how intrusive it might or might not be.
However, that does lead me to wonder if Twitter could be preparing itself for a few things down the road:
- Given all of the concerns raised by regulators about social media, Twitter wants to show that it takes consumer privacy seriously and wants to address it now; the company wants the regulators to use it as a positive example.
- Twitter could be looking at its future in terms of how marketers use its platform for larger advertising initiatives. It did buy social marketing automation marketing platform Rest Engine, which helps social app publishers send targeted one-to-one emails based on a subscriber's social graph.
What to expect as a consumer
The most difficult thing now for consumers is to navigate this do-not-track beacon, which isn't easy in many of the current browser releases. Chrome requires extensions, and Safari requires you to know about its developer mode or use a plug-in. In the upcoming release of Internet Explorer 10, Microsoft takes user choice out of the equation by automatically sending a do-not-track header on behalf of users, and Firefox simply offers an option in its privacy preference panel.
By turning these on, though, you'll find your internet experience a bit confusing. The end result ranges from the fairly benign (very well-timed ads in the sidebar of your favorite free mail client) to downright unnerving experiences with search results. So don't make this choice lightly. This is still very much in its infancy, and we are already finding unintended consequences.
It is important to remember, especially in light of all of the new legislation and technologies surrounding tracking, that it does provide important and necessary functions for web users. Shopping carts, recalled credentials, and personalization are all tied to a positive browsing experience, and personalized ads cannot be discounted when discussing the overall internet experience. Most people tend to overlook the fact that the internet is mostly free (not including hardware and ISP costs), and this is tied in no small part to the revenue generated by targeted advertising.
Add to cost a lack of personalization for ads and pages visited daily, and things would appear to be quite dismal. How would that impact your daily life? People need to truly consider the pros and cons of limited online privacy. As a privacy expert, my thought is that while privacy is of huge importance, most would be willing to trade some of it to facilitate the online experience they know and love.
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