This morning I received an email from amazon.com. It had the rather generic opening "Are you looking for something in our Crafts, Hobbies and Home books department?"
This was followed by a very specific list of books on raising Border Collies.
How does amazon.com know I have a Border Collie? I never told them that. I have never looked for anything even dog related at amazon.com.
I have done several searches on google and youtube recently. Perhaps they sold me out. Or perhaps one or more of the sites I went to from google dropped a cookie from one of the third party marketing companies.
Those are the two most likely avenues. What is certain is that someone has been spying on me, and gave amazon a tip about what I might be looking for.
With all the recent news about NSA spying, this led me to ponder a few questions.
If we are bothered by the NSA spying (which according to polls we are bothered, by it, but mostly accept it as necessary), why is there not an equal degree of concern about evil sneaky corporations spying on us?
Should we even be bothered by any of this information gathering?
People raise the concern that government will use this information in malicious ways, the "Red Scare/McCarthyism" all over again, only on a much grander scale, or they will use it to manipulate political boundaries to serve their ends, or to target troublesome groups (like the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups).
But couldn't corporations do much the same thing with the data they have? Marketing groups have spent billions understanding how color, shape, etc.. influence us. Couldn't they take advantage of this greater volume of information about us to subconsciously manipulate us? Subvert us?
On the other hand, all this information COULD be put to good use.
In the case of my amazon.com message, yes, I am looking for Border Collie information, and perhaps one of their suggestions is exactly what I am looking for, but didn't show up amid the billions of search hits I got from Google.
It is not impossible to imagine a time when someone could wake up and find an email informing them that there has been a high probability of a specific form of cancer among people born in a certain area with a certain lifestyle, which they match, and that certain preventative measures drastically reduce that risk. This could be culled from the population at large by collecting enough information. amount where people live, what they eat, what they do,... The more information gathered, the more patterns could emerge, given sufficiently powerful computers and analysis algorithms.
But there is the risk of abuse. You might get rejected for insurance because your mom gave you peanut butter when you were 9 months old.
Ultimately I conclude that the information is simply a tool, which can be used for good or evil. The real problem with this information gathering is that it is one-way, with no transparency. "They" are collecting all this information on me. I should have the same information on them. I should know exactly what they are collecting, and how they are using it. (I am working on a series of posts that delve more into the information age failure, which will conclude with some suggestions related to this.)
Until then (if then) what do I do to protect myself? I could use an anonymous browsing service, such as Tor. I could use a live CD, or create a virtual machine, and do all my browsing from there. Thus all the cookies and such would be saved to volatile memory, instead of to disk. They would be associated with an anonymous account, not with me, and they would get erased every day, or more frequently, when I turned of the computer (or virtual machine).
(If there is interest, I would be happy to create tutorials on any of these above methods. let me know).
There is a downside to this though. Many of these sites, which are providing me with free information, depend on money they receive from these advertising groups. It costs money to host a web site. Their options are to advertise, or to charge me.
What to do, what to do...
What do you think?