Skip to main content

'Stalker economy' here to stay

By Bruce Schneier
November 26, 2013 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bruce Schneier: It's no surprise that companies are tracking us more aggressively
  • Schneier: Keep in mind that you're the product; their real customers are the advertisers
  • He says for example, the "Do Not Track" law is essentially useless to protect consumers
  • Schneier: Many sites run on advertising; companies have little incentive to provide privacy

Editor's note: Bruce Schneier is a security technologist and author of "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust Society Needs to Thrive."

(CNN) -- Google recently announced that it would start including individual users' names and photos in some ads. This means that if you rate some product positively, your friends may see ads for that product with your name and photo attached -- without your knowledge or consent. Meanwhile, Facebook is eliminating a feature that allowed people to retain some portions of their anonymity on its website.

These changes come on the heels of Google's move to explore replacing tracking cookies with something that users have even less control over. Microsoft is doing something similar by developing its own tracking technology.

More generally, lots of companies are evading the "Do Not Track" rules, meant to give users a say in whether companies track them. Turns out the whole "Do Not Track" legislation has been a sham.

Bruce Schneier
Bruce Schneier

It shouldn't come as a surprise that big technology companies are tracking us on the Internet even more aggressively than before.

If these features don't sound particularly beneficial to you, it's because you're not the customer of any of these companies. You're the product, and you're being improved for their actual customers: their advertisers.

This is nothing new. For years, these sites and others have systematically improved their "product" by reducing user privacy. This excellent infographic, for example, illustrates how Facebook has done so over the years.

The "Do Not Track" law serves as a sterling example of how bad things are. When it was proposed, it was supposed to give users the right to demand that Internet companies not track them. Internet companies fought hard against the law, and when it was passed, they fought to ensure that it didn't have any benefit to users. Right now, complying is entirely voluntary, meaning that no Internet company has to follow the law. If a company does, because it wants the PR benefit of seeming to take user privacy seriously, it can still track its users.

Really: if you tell a "Do Not Track"-enabled company that you don't want to be tracked, it will stop showing you personalized ads. But your activity will be tracked -- and your personal information collected, sold and used -- just like everyone else's. It's best to think of it as a "track me in secret" law.

Of course, people don't think of it that way. Most people aren't fully aware of how much of their data is collected by these sites. And, as the "Do Not Track" story illustrates, Internet companies are doing their best to keep it that way.

The result is a world where our most intimate personal details are collected and stored. I used to say that Google has a more intimate picture of what I'm thinking of than my wife does. But that's not far enough: Google has a more intimate picture than I do. The company knows exactly what I am thinking about, how much I am thinking about it, and when I stop thinking about it: all from my Google searches. And it remembers all of that forever.

As the Edward Snowden revelations continue to expose the full extent of the National Security Agency's eavesdropping on the Internet, it has become increasingly obvious how much of that has been enabled by the corporate world's existing eavesdropping on the Internet.

The public/private surveillance partnership is fraying, but it's largely alive and well. The NSA didn't build its eavesdropping system from scratch; it got itself a copy of what the corporate world was already collecting.

There are a lot of reasons why Internet surveillance is so prevalent and pervasive.

One, users like free things, and don't realize how much value they're giving away to get it. We know that "free" is a special price that confuses peoples' thinking.

Google's 2013 third quarter revenue was nearly $15 billion with profit just under $3 billion. That profit is the difference between how much our privacy is worth and the cost of the services we receive in exchange for it.

Two, Internet companies deliberately make privacy not salient. When you log onto Facebook, you don't think about how much personal information you're revealing to the company; you're chatting with your friends. When you wake up in the morning, you don't think about how you're going to allow a bunch of companies to track you throughout the day; you just put your cell phone in your pocket.

And three, the Internet's winner-takes-all market means that privacy-preserving alternatives have trouble getting off the ground. How many of you know that there is a Google alternative called DuckDuckGo that doesn't track you? Or that you can use cut-out sites to anonymize your Google queries? I have opted out of Facebook, and I know it affects my social life.

There are two types of changes that need to happen in order to fix this. First, there's the market change. We need to become actual customers of these sites so we can use purchasing power to force them to take our privacy seriously. But that's not enough. Because of the market failures surrounding privacy, a second change is needed. We need government regulations that protect our privacy by limiting what these sites can do with our data.

Surveillance is the business model of the Internet -- Al Gore recently called it a "stalker economy." All major websites run on advertising, and the more personal and targeted that advertising is, the more revenue the site gets for it. As long as we users remain the product, there is minimal incentive for these companies to provide any real privacy.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bruce Schneier.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 23, 2014 -- Updated 1414 GMT (2214 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT