Reports that Google may be drawing up plans for a new way to track Web-browsing consumers backed me into an awkward position: Until yesterday, I didn’t really realize that I liked Web cookies.
That might be a bit strong. Let’s just say I tolerate them, as the price of doing business. After all, my salary is paid by these crumbs of infomation collected about you as you pass by PCWorld and other IDG sites.
But USA Today’s report that Google may be developing plans for an anonymous identifier for advertising, or AdID, should give you an uneasy feeling.
Officially, AdID hasn’t moved beyond the development stage. Google spokesman Rob Shilkin described AdID and related programs as “concepts,” that are “in the very early stages.” Skilkin added, “technological enhancements can improve users’ security while ensuring the Web remains economically viable.”
Cookies: both familiar and mysterious
Browser cookies have a cute name and have been around long enough to seem familiar, but they remain mysterious. Their code can collect something useful about you: saved preferences, for example. But more often than not, those digital bits have a more self-serving purpose, including tracking your movements across the Web and reporting back to Internet advertising agencies.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this; knowing your wants and preferences allows ad firms to place more relevant ads. Football fanatics might appreciate a beer-and-wings deal at a local pub. A $10 discount at a new online fashion site might lure a new customer.
But neither the ad agencies nor the browser companies have answered the fundamental question: What information does a cookie contain? Even diving deep into your browser doesn’t reveal much. In Chrome, enter the Settings menu, then click the "Show advanced settings..." link at the very bottom. In Advanced Settings, click Content Settings and All cookies and site data. There, finally, you’ll find a list of cookies, which you can click on to reveal... what, exactly? A string of hexadecimal code? Trying to parse cookies is like trying to read assembly instructions in another language: Through a bit of trial and error, you can make sense of it all. But doing so with tens or hundreds of cookies is an exercise in frustration.
Is Google the answer or the problem?
If you were to place browser cookies on an arbitrary “creepiness” scale, there’s still a great deal of room between where things stand now and, say, an NSA agent looking over your shoulder. Google has already pushed increasing transparency onto Android app permissions, forcing developers to disclose what they will do with your data. It’s certainly possible that Google could do the same with AdIDs, forcing advertisers to disclose, in simple terms, what information those AdIDs required: relative age, rough location, gender, et cetera. Many people would view that as a good thing. On the other hand, pushing gobs of detailed permissions in front of users arguably numbs them in the same way that most people blindly click through licensing and privacy agreements.
But the problem is that we’ve come so far from a past where advertisers deduced the audience of “Little House on the Prairie” from Nielsen ratings, to one in which what you are doing right now can be deduced from a variety of factors. Google has mastered the art of trading useful services in return for your personalized data. And in a world that Google hopes will be governed by Google Glass, its Nexus phones, and self-driving cars, is there any doubt that consumers should be concerned?
When we talk about the future of devices whose wireless connections will form the structure of the Internet of Things, gimmicks like adjusting your home’s thermostat remotely are just what's on the surface. In this world, devices will gossip behind your back, noting that youv’e just removed your last gallon of milk. It’s these multitude of permutations of data acting, interacting, and reacting, that advertisers eventually hope to monetize. Eventually, ads will become smart, personalized, and predictive.
You tell me: In that scenario, would you mind if an embedded ad on The New York Times Web page reminded you to pick up a gallon of Sunnyside non-fat on your way home from work? Or would you rather your self-driving car merely added in a short detour? Or would you rather manage your life entirely by yourself?
Intel anthropologist Genevieve Bell recently noted that your a petabyte’s worth of your genomic data may be the key to personalized cancer treatments that could extend your life. But oh, what a treasure trove for your insurance company. (Sergey Brin’s wife, Anne Wojcicki, runs such a firm, 23andMe.)
Here’s the question that worries me: Moving forward, what happens as your data—what makes you, you—becomes increasingly commoditized? In twenty-five years, will we be trading our entire genome for a few more lives in Candy Crush Saga X? Probably not. But it doesn't sound all that far-fetched.