MSFT Wants To Identify All Web Surfers Based on Surfing Habits

Not wanting to be outdone by Google’s recent news about profiling users based on their psychological profiles, reports have emerged that Microsoft is developing new technologies to identify users based on their browsing habits:

IF YOU thought you could protect your privacy on the web by lying about your personal details, think again. In online communities at least, entering fake details such as a bogus name or age may no longer prevent others from working out exactly who you are.

That is the spectre raised by new research conducted by Microsoft. The computing giant is developing software that could accurately guess your name, age, gender and potentially even your location, by analysing telltale patterns in your web browsing history.

…the software could get its raw information from a number of sources, including a new type of “cookie” program that records the pages visited. Alternatively, it could use your PC’s own cache of web pages, or proxy servers could maintain records of sites visited. So far it can only guess gender and age with any accuracy, but the team say they expect to be able to “refine the profiles which contain bogus demographic information”, and one day predict your occupation, level of qualifications, and perhaps your location.

This would be an unprecedented shift if the informational norms of the privacy of one’s online browsing activities. While cookies and IP logging allow some tracking of user’s habits, various tools exist to help users maintain some levels of privacy and anonymity as they browse, search, and communicate online. Microsoft’s proposal would be aimed specifically at overcoming these privacy enhancing technologies in order to monitor, capture, and aggregate user’s online habits and activities.

UPDATE: Kevin Schofield responds (found via CoD) to what he sees as a gross over-reaction and misunderstanding of this research. I concede to Mr. Schofield that many (including some of my rhetoric above) might be jumping the gun on Microsoft wanting to personally identify users based on their habits. But my general concern rests in the growing prevalence of this kind of research — the ever-constant aggregating, mining, and profiling of our everyday activities. This is yet another step down that troublesome path…

1 comment

  1. Thanks for the link (and the concession).

    I share your concern. But the research, adn the data mining technology, are going to progress forward whether we like it or not.

    I push hard for openness and transparency — it’s good that researchers can tell us what is currently possible and impossible, and it’s a good thing when companies are open about their data collection and privacy practices. We’re better off having this all out in the open than the know-how and the data in the hands of a select few.

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