All eyes on you

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It’s a disturbing concept, although, post-Eric Snowden, not a completely foreign one. While you sit at home, watching the pages scroll by on the Internet, the Internet may well be watching you.

And not the way you think. You might not be concerned, for example, about the U.S. National Security Agency trolling through your metadata to see if there’s a combination of language, frequency of contacts and sources of those contacts that might mark you as a potential terrorist. “Watch away,” you might say, “I’ve got nothing worth hiding.”

Well, this week, Canada’s privacy commissioner took aim at a different web sampler, and a different kind of sampling.

The privacy commissioner was interested in Google after a very specific complaint came to light. A man complained to the commissioner after going on Google to search for information about a device used to help with sleep apnea, a medical condition that causes interrupted breathing in people while they sleep.

What the man noticed was that, after his searches, advertisements for similar devices started to crop up on other websites he visited.

The concept is known as targeted advertising: essentially, once Google knows what you’re interested in, it matches those interests with advertisers and products you might be considering buying.

Problem is, that also means sorting customers and identifying them based on medical conditions — something that should be considered to be the kind of information protected by privacy legislation.

Stop and think for a moment what a financial boon it could be for your medical insurer, if they were able to look at your prescriptions and offer you up to advertisers who had products that dealt with common side-effects to those medications: “Hear you might be suffering from dry mouth — well, try this free sample of Tonguewash 4000!”

Think, also, about the immediate backlash there would be to that kind of marketing of private information. After all, you might not want advertisers to know you were suffering from erectile dysfunction, a sexually transmitted disease, hemorrhoids or any other of a number of embarrassing medical issues.

And if your insurer can’t share that kind of information, why on Earth should a web-based search engine be able to?

That’s exactly the conclusion the federal privacy commissioner came to — while at the same time arguing the way the Internet functions makes it hard to separate personal tastes from private information.

“If an organization as sophisticated as Google had difficulty ensuring compliance with its privacy policy, surely others have the same challenges,” interim privacy commissioner Chantal Bernier told The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. “The operational challenges are inherent to online behavioural advertising. There is an ambiguity, and a necessity to define what is sensitive information — and how do you monitor billions of ads?”

The simple answer? Industries that use targeted advertising are going to have to find a way, or else leave themselves open to complaints and, potentially, legal action.

For the common web user, though, the most important thing to remember is that your computer is a two-way interface — and, as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once famously wrote, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

Enough said.

Organizations: Google, U.S. National Security Agency, Globe and Mail

Geographic location: Canada

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