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What They Know About You

Personalization sounds good. “Your Web site can be personalized to show you data that pertains to you.” That’s nice. But how do they do it? What information do they have about you that lets them do this? For the most part, it’s all information that you gave them. Usually the site has a preferences page or options page where you give information about stocks, address, zip code, interests, or whatever, and that information is used to provide the personalization. Other times you put the information on a form you fill out to get service from that company. These are fairly straightforward ways for someone to get information about you. But after that it gets a bit more subtle. Once companies have this information, many of them turn around and sell it to other people who want it. For example, a sleeping bag manufacturer might want to buy a list of Outdoor Equipment Suppliers Inc. customers so they can try to sell sleeping bags to someone who is probably interested in camping. Usually this list includes personal information too. The buyers want unique names, so they ask for e-mail addresses, phone numbers, addresses, or something that can ensure each entry is unique.

Banner ads on Web pages are even worse. Many of these ads can determine who clicked and what they clicked. Then by tracking that information, the advertisers can try to build a profile of particular customers and tailor their ads to meet those customer’s needs. A large online advertising firm has systems that attempt to do this—or at least they did until lawsuits were filed. Every time someone clicked an ad that was placed by this company, an entry was made in a database about who clicked what ad. Over time this let them build a profile of habits and interests for tailoring advertising to a specific user—or that was the theory. The problem is, many people feel that this type of “tracking” of user behavior is an invasion of their privacy.


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