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The Personalization Conundrum: The Murky Side of the Web.

“In the effort to create a personalized web experience, data is the driver.  And companies who mine that data are in the driver’s seat.”

                               Marty Baker

Image by SillySilOn July 30 2010, Julia Angwin -- the award-winning investigative journalist at The Wall Street Journal – pried open window on the invisible side of the web.  In an article called, “The Web's New Gold Mine: Your Secrets,” she wrote:

“The file consists of a single code— 4c812db292272995e5416a323e79bd37—that secretly identifies her as a 26-year-old female in Nashville, Tenn.

The code knows that her favorite movies include "The Princess Bride," "50 First Dates" and "10 Things I Hate About You." It knows she enjoys the "Sex and the City" series. It knows she browses entertainment news and likes to take quizzes. "Well, I like to think I have some mystery left to me, but apparently not!" Ms. Hayes-Beaty said when told what that snippet of code reveals about her. "The profile is eerily correct."

Angwin’s article reveals that Ms. Hayes-Beaty was being monitored by Lotame Solutions Inc., a New York company that uses sophisticated software called a "beacon" to capture what people are typing on a website. The company packages that data into profiles about individuals, without mentioning the person's name, and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers.

In the quest for deeper, more relevant personalization, the tracking of consumers “has grown more pervasive and intrusive than is realized by all but a handful of people in the vanguard of the industry.”            

The Wall Street Investigation found that the nation's 50 top websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. The nonprofit Wikipedia installed none.

Enter Eli Pariser, former executive director of MoveOn.org and author of The Filter Bubble. 

In his book, Pariser writes, “Search for a word like ‘depression”’ on Dictionary.com, and the site installs up to 223 tracking cookies and beacons on your computer so other web sites can target you with antidepressants.  Share an article about cooking on ABC News, and you may be chased around the web by ads for Teflon-coated pots.”

The invisible side of the web is a market for information about virtually everything you do online – “driven by low-profile, but highly profitable personal data companies.” One company, Acxiom has accumulated an average of 1500 pieces of data on each person in its database – “which includes 96% of Americans – along with data about everything from credit scores to whether they’ve bought medication for incontinence.”

Angwin and Pariser both illuminate the great data dilemma.  In the effort to create a personalized web experience, data is the driver.  And companies who mine that data are in the driver’s seat.

Pariser adds, “In the view of the ‘behavior market’ vendors, every ‘click signal’ you create is a commodity, and every move of your mouse can be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”

Stanford law professor Ryan Calo told Pariser “every technology has an interface – a place where you end and the technology begins.  And when the technology’s job is to show you the world, it ends up sitting between you and reality, like a camera lens…there’s lots of ways for it to skew your perception of the world.”

So the conundrum is a murky trade off.  The consumer gets access to “free” services like Dictionary.com, Kayak, or Google and in return these companies get a MRI of your life.

The ethical challenge is that much of that trade off is invisible to the consumer. 

When it isn’t invisible, it is shrouded in impenetrable legalese and a gauntlet of privacy-setting controls.

Let there be light.

For more insight, check out Angwin’s WSJ article at:


And Pariser’s book, The Filter Bubble at:


Here is Pariser's TED talk:

















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