Others Online: Opt-In Web Surveillance

A new service called Others Online makes obvious what Google Toolbar and other browser tools do in the background: track users web browsing activities. From their site:

Others Online is a free toolbar that shows you people relevant to your Web browsing and other interests, on every page you visit. We show you the interests you have in common, their Web pages (blog, MySpace profile, Web site, etc.) and online status, all on their terms. We’ll even connect you by IM or email.

…Every time you search the Web, you’ll see people that have associated themselves to those keywords, plus you’ll see any other interests you share. It’s like “Google for people”!

In a nutshell, users sign up, create a profile like most other social networking site, download the toolbar, and then start browsing the web like usual. Others Online then collects information about the websites visited (including the URL and relevant content keywords embedded in the URL), and then shows other users who share a similar profile and browsing habits.

Sorta cool to be able to find other people searching for the same stuff I am, such as “web surfing surveillance”. But my concern is that products like this, even though opt-in, work to normalize web surveillance, playing into the “I’ve got nothing to hide” meme that justifies wholesale surveillance of our daily activities. The more users become comfortable with the surveillance of their online activities, the less likely they will be able to identify abuses of that surveillance.

A couple of other points on this particular service:

  • Their privacy policy states that “When you sign up for an Others Online Account, we ask you for personal information (such as your birth date, gender, email address, country, post code and an account password)….” But that the “service is anonymous – we do not request your name or your physical address.” This isn’t entirely true, since research (such as Latanya Sweeney‘s amazing work) has shown that 87 percent of Americans can be personally identified by records listing only their birth date, gender and ZIP code. Anonymity is not guaranteed simply by not collecting one’s name and address.
  • Another note in the privacy policy states that “We may combine the information you submit under your account with information from third parties in order to provide you with a better experience and to improve the quality of our services.” Who knows what kind of “information from third parties” they’re talking about, but this is just the kind of data mining and data aggregation practices that Sweeney (and folks like Dan Solove) warn us about.
  • While you can clear your entire search history, it doesn’t seem to be possible to selectively delete certain searches or browsing activities from their database. Users must remember to logoff the service is they don’t want others to know they’ve been watching Pat Benetar videos on YouTube.

[via John Battelle]

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