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Keeping Tabs On Who's Keeping Tabs

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Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.

By Luz Elena Hernandez

Lately I've been thinking about how new technologies that are supposed to make life easier sometimes come with a tradeoff that can't be easily ignored -- at least not once you know about it.

Take online tracking. The benefits that come from websites tracking your tastes and preferences is that the marketing and ads you receive may be more appealing to your interests. You see fewer of ads for things you wouldn't want in a million years. Also, companies have to pay more for these targeted ads, which in turn, allows websites to provide more free content for the public. Of course, the downside to this convenient tracking technology is that there's always a record being made of where you go online. And the reality is that most people are unaware that this is occurring. It's scary to think that you're being monitored without even knowing.

Cyberspace isn't the only place technology can follow you. Here in the Bay Area, there's a real world comparison to online tracking. The Clipper Card has been implemented as a new way to pay for transportation -- by combining all public transit payments onto one card. You can purchase and refill the card anonymously with cash. But if you want to refill online, pay with a credit card or receive age-based discounts, you're required to fill out personal information that gets linked to your card. Once your info is attached to the card, somewhere a digital record of where you are and where you have been begins to get made.

I personally did not know that this could happen until a friend told me this information. In the case of the Clipper Card, the concern is that police -- not online marketers -- will be able to keep tabs on you. (The company that operates the card says it stores personal information and tracking records in separate databases and that it won't hand those files over to law enforcement without a court order.) This made me begin to think twice about whether the convenience of the all-in-one card was worth the possible repercussions that could come with having all my information on it. Does it cross the line to becoming an invasion of privacy? Does it make a difference that most people probably don't know they can be tracked that way?

I have similar questions about marketers being able to see what people do online. It's great if they're going to use the information as a way to benefit customers. But in the end, we don't know for sure how they're using that data. For me, it comes down to consent. The fact that people don't know that they are being monitored bothers me -- we have the right to know what we're giving to marketers and why, and then the right to refuse.

Last month, the Federal Trade Commission proposed to acknowledge those rights with a “Do Not track List” for online marketers and websites, similar to the “Do Not Call List” that prevents telemarketers from calling your home. The List is a step in the right direction, because it would give Internet users the opportunity to choose whether or not they want the benefits of marketers accessing their recent searchers or if they feel that it's an invasion of their privacy. The FTC hasn't worked out all the details of implementing such a system, but it's better to have a work in progress than nothing. And it's better to have a choice about whether getting a little convenience is worth losing some privacy.

Previously:
Airport and Online Privacy 
The Privacy Wars I: Warcraft
Privacy Wars II: Many Faces, One Book

Youth Radio/Youth Media International (YMI) is youth-driven converged media production company that delivers the best youth news, culture and undiscovered talent to a cross section of audiences. To read more youth news from around the globe and explore high quality audio and video features, visit Youthradio.org.

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