Notes from the Technology Trenches - Privacy and Online Profiling

Roger Skalbeck is the Electronic Initiatives Librarian at Howrey & Simon in Washington, D.C., and is the Web Master of the Law Librarians' Society of Washington, D.C.  Current work activities cover myriad aspects of electronic research resource evaluation, intranet content development, as well as research and technology training, all from a librarian's point of view. This column reflects the personal views of the author, which are not necessarily those of his employer or any other organization. This column, of course, is 100% free of any legal advice.


The main topic for this month deals with online profiling and privacy of personal information on the Internet. Over the last two weeks, there have been a number of stories and events relating to practices for collecting and protecting online information, so it seems like the appropriate time to present them here.

Online profiling comes in many different forms and levels of complexity, but the underlying concept is that user activity and information is tracked at Web sites with the use of associated tracking software and technologies. For the most part, this profiling is done to track customer preferences, tied in with marketing and advertising techniques.

Early news of this type of tracking centered on the use of the cookie file in transferring limited-level user information from a web server to your personal computer. New technologies and marketing techniques allow companies to track an even greater level of detail for users for subsequent tracking. With the advent of free email services, forced registration for free and fee-based Internet content, as well several certain kinds of "free" and very low-cost PCs, there is a potential that users are making available even more detailed information to companies who offer these services and products.

In an effort to explore the technologies associated with profiling, the Federal Trade Commission recently held a Public Workshop on "On-line profiling", which included a diverse cross-section of panelists, ranging from privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Junkbusters Corporation to the Internet advertising company DoubleClick, Inc. and the Association of National Advertisers. To see a complete listing of those in attendance, refer to the program agenda and the published public comments.

During the week of this workshop, the New York Times ran two stories about privacy and profiling, as follows:

New Tools to Protect Online Privacy by Peter Wayner – This article provides a brief overview of emerging technologies that are being developed to help keep user activities anonymous and private. One example is cited in an effort to provide private online cash transactions. (11/11/1999)

Do You Know Who’s Watching You? Do You Care? by Kathie Hafner – This article looks at a variety of techniques that companies are using to keep track of customers, as well as related privacy and customer-service issues. (11/11/1999)

For other recent privacy-related articles in the New York Times, check out their index on Privacy in the Digital Age. As an interesting point to note, Internet users can access New York Times material for free for the most part, but registration is required. Their Real Damage Control – Again". In both cases of reported privacy problems, RealNetworks has issued software patches to correct the situation. RealNetworks has also recently updated their privacy statement, so you can view it on their site to see what kind of information they gather. In spite of the software patches, Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer reports that a class action lawsuit has been filed against the company, in an article from November 10th entitled "Suit Says RealNetworks’ ‘RealJukeBox’ Software is Right Out of RealBigBrother’", with claims of invasion of privacy. In the article, it is noted that RealNetworks insists that they never stored the information.

For other recent privacy-related articles in the New York Times, check out their index on Privacy in the Digital Age. As an interesting point to note, Internet users can access New York Times material for free for the most part, but registration is required. Their Real Damage Control – Again". In both cases of reported privacy problems, RealNetworks has issued software patches to correct the situation. RealNetworks has also recently updated their privacy statement, so you can view it on their site to see what kind of information they gather. In spite of the software patches, Philadelphia’s Legal Intelligencer reports that a class action lawsuit has been filed against the company, in an article from November 10th entitled "Suit Says RealNetworks’ ‘RealJukeBox’ Software is Right Out of RealBigBrother’", with claims of invasion of privacy. In the article, it is noted that RealNetworks insists that they never stored the information.

For another recent story on profiling, check out the November issue of Knowledge Management magazine, which includes a good overview of many of the issues, especially with respect to businesses and customer data.

Being Analog

The ever insightful Walt Crawford has recently published a new book entitled, Being Analog: Building Tomorrow’s Libraries. This is the follow-up to Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness and Reality which he co-wrote with Michael Gorman. In the predecessor work, Crawford and Gorman expose a plethora of fallacies about the death of print and predictions for an all-electronic future.  In Being Analog, Crawford further tempers the futurist views that we will at some point be dealing with an all digital future. In doing so, Crawford attempts to suggest ways to think about how today’s libraries might develop and adapt for a mid-term future, while still serving user needs. As Crawford points out in different ways, even when we have digital resources they are still being utilized by "analog users".

For the non-library audience, I highly recommend Part I of this book. In the sections entitled "The Future Is Not What it Used to Be" and "The All-Digital Future Does Not Compute", Crawford presents a very realistic, and at times sobering, view of what future digital resources are likely to entail and bring about.

The title of this book presumably represents a knowing nod to Nicholas Negroponte’s book from the mid 1990s, Being Digital, which included compiled articles from Wired magazine.

Press images of librarians

As a librarian and strong supporter of libraries, I always find it encouraging when I see prominent press coverage of the profession. It was then with mixed emotions though that I read a story in late October, in which the Washington Times profiled "today’s librarian". The article describes today’s librarians as "a changing breed", though not focusing on any of the evolving aspects of the profession, as impacted by advances in technology or changes in the workplace. Instead, the article focuses on cultural and social aspects such as a recent sex survey published in an issue of American Libraries (official member’s publication of the American Library Association). Other aspects of the article touch on issues of making Internet access available in public libraries without also allowing for filtering of content.

One of the responses to the article appeared as a letter from Thomas Williams, a library director in Mobile, Alabama. He refers to the article as "a bit of a stretch", furthering that "The article painted librarians and libraries, especially public libraries, as permissive pornography proponents."  To get the whole picture of what was included in the article and response letters, check them out online or at a local library.

Though this article is not online to view for free, you can click below to access it on Lexis-Nexis, or purchase it at the Web site for the Washington Times.

Washington Times article on librarians with related follow-up letters (available on Lexis) [Note: This link is structured to log in to Lexis-Nexis and perform a single search in the file for the Washington Times, for which you will be charged according to your contract terms. To access the materials, you must have a current Lexis-Nexis ID. The article appeared on October 29, 1999. Part A, Culture, etc. p.A2.]

If you have comments on this column or suggestions for any follow-up, please feel free to send me an email.

Copyright © 1999 Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved

SITES MENTIONED

Cookie file definition

Public Workshop on "On-line profiling"

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Junkbusters Corporation

DoubleClick, Inc

Association of National Advertisers

New Tools to Protect Online Privacy

Do You Know Who’s Watching You? Do You Care?

Privacy in the Digital Age

Privacy Statement from the New York Times

TRUSTe

RealNetworks

TRUSTe Declines Real probe

How Much is Your Playlist Worth

Real Damage Control – Again

Privacy Statement – From RealNetworks

Suit Says RealNetworks’ ‘RealJukeBox’ Software is Right Out of RealBigBrother’

November issue of Knowledge Management

Being Analog: Building Tomorrow’s Libraries

Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness and Reality

Being Digital

Washington Times

Washington Times article on librarians with related follow-up letters (available on Lexis)