The battle to maintain some semblance of privacy in our online lives is a classic one-step-forward, two-steps-back situation. Just when you start to feel you have a grasp of things, we get hit with new revelations about government spying.
The latest? How U.S. and British intelligent agencies are working to take advantage of the extraordinary information that online social-media sites are collecting on us.
So that's the latest two steps back. The latest one step forward deserves more notice.
Both Apple and Android have recently introduced new ways for advertisers to deliver targeted ads to us. This sounds like bad news, but the good part is that, given widespread consumer outrage on the issues, both companies have shown some spine and designed the new protocols both to keep the data anonymized and to make it easier for us to opt out from tracking.
Let's be honest. In the realities of the world we live in, we have to accept not just advertising but creative advertising. Most of the Internet is free; the price we pay for it is ads of one sort or another. But changing technology – and the advantage companies have over us when it comes to understanding the implications of technology – has created a situation that is both excessive and harmful.
And, further, we should note that the ad-tracking data the companies collect should be anonymous. They just know a certain user associated with a certain random identifier buys cat food regularly, likes action movies, and visits a Baskin-Robbins a little too frequently – not that it's you, John W. Smith, doing it all.
That said, let's look at the new systems, and I'll tell you how to opt out.
Neither company goes out of its way to make this easier. (Details on the new Android ad tracker, incidentally, were broken by USA Today's Alistair Barr.) Removing them or resetting them takes a bit of work.
If you're an iPhone user, you need to go into Settings, then click Privacy, and then scroll all the way down to Advertising. You'll see a button labeled says, "Limit ad tracking." If it's not showing a green color, click the button so that it shows green. This will stop ad companies from tracking what you do with your phone and serving up targeted ads.
Right underneath that, incidentally, you'll see the "Reset Advertising Identifier." Clicking on that will zero out the anonymized identifier as relates your personal data. To trackers, you will then appear to be a new user.
Now let's go to Android. The new Google "AdID" system has similar intents – and is similarly difficult to find. Here, you don't go to your Android phone settings, but your Google Settings app.
Look for the Ads link. There, as with the iPhone, you'll be able both to reset your advertising ID and click on a box to "opt out of interest based ads."
Now let's go back to what I mentioned above. Most of the Internet is free; what's wrong with a little tracking? Because it's not just tracking. It's tracking and storing. And it's an amount of data that, as we've seen time and time again, can quickly begin to paint a compelling picture of every customer.
The implications are heavy. I'm sure you heard about the report last year of a man who called Target in a rage because his 16-year-old daughter was suddenly being served up with expectant-mother ads. He called the store back later to apologize—turned out his daughter was pregnant. The store's algorithms for figuring out such things had been spot on!
The storage of the data means that, at some point, someone can get to it. And as we recently read, intelligence agencies in the U.S. and Britain have begun to do just that for social-media sites. And when it comes to ad trackers, it's not too hard to imagine an enterprising behind-the-scenes government initiative to remove that anonymization.
In fact, they can barely control their glee about it. One of the PowerPoint slides recently released was headlined, "Golden Nugget!"
Imagine if the government passed a law that required all U.S. citizens to carry around GPS tracking devices and complete records of our buying and playing habits. That, I think you will agree, would be a hard sell, and provoke widespread protests. So why are we all essentially volunteering that information to companies and a government that might not be trusted to use it carefully and legally?