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Paranoia In The Age of AOL

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Most were comfortable, if only slightly so, with giving their personal information to Web companies. There was trust implied, and a willingness to give a little to get a little. Thanks to AOL, that could soon be the Internet of old. Heebie-jeebies abound as the public reconsiders what online marketers know about them.

Paranoia In The Age Of AOL
I Always Feel Like… Somebody’s Watchin’ Me…

Yes, they’re watching you.

It’s sensible to assume there is a disconnect in the collective unconscious when it comes to the public nature of the Internet. People understand they can hardly expect privacy, even just outside their homes, running to the car in boxer shorts. The paparazzi remind celebrities every day that outside is public.

But the Internet is used inside the home, in the dining room or office, navigated by private thoughts and intentions. It’s harder to imagine that you’ve digitized yourself for the Matrix, and have stepped outside your home while seated in your computer chair.

But that’s exactly what has happened. Instead of a name, now you have a number, and that number is visible to many.

It may also be a consensus that marketers are relatively harmless. That’s not the question. The questions arise as to if and when government watchdogs, spammers, phishers, or hackers grab hold of the information and how they use it. If not dragged into federal court, AOL has shown how simple it is to be dragged into public opinion court by a single leak.

The New York Times reports that Yahoo! categorizes searchers into nice little gerund groups. A search for car information tags you “consciously cruising,” as if you’d physically walked onto a lot. Click a moving van ad and now you’re “home hopping.”

Behavioral search targeting is cutting edge. Expect more of it in the future. Not only does Yahoo! log your searches, but knows what pages you’ve visited, what ads were clicked. This is necessary information for an online advertising company, and users will consent as long as Yahoo! doesn’t pull an AOL. Microsoft and Google have technology to do the same type of analysis, and will continue the race to know more about searcher behavior and ad targeting than the other.

“Search behavior is the closest thing we have to a window onto people’s intent,” Jeff Marshall, a senior vice president of Starcom IP told the New York Times.

Amazon, too, is working on a massive database to store customer information. Religion, sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, birthday, hobbies, occupation, education and income level, and residence could become part of your gift-clustering cookie. They say there’s merely a patent application for the technology, and have no immediate plans to use it.

But the current AOL jitters rolling around the Internet make the 1984 cautionary crowd wonder if and how these companies will have adequate protection for the data they’ve collected. A bill in Congress aimed at requiring Internet companies to purge data after a set amount of time has been sidelined for now. The Department of Justice loves this stuff.

In Sweden, as privacy and freedom advocates seek to fight government online spying, the Swedish Pirate Party has begun backing a service called Relakks, an anonymizing technology that cloaks your online identity without a proxy which can slow down your connection speed, and also works with P2P. Expect more of those services as the online populace gets increasingly jumpy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is advising anyone whose information was leaked by AOL to let them know about it. AOL members are encouraged to contact AOL to find out if they were affected.

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