While preparing a talk on privacy I gave earlier this week at the Harvard Club of Concord, MA (thanks for the warm reception!), I thought I would see how much Harvard itself is involved in enabling the data aggregation industry. My colleague Latanya Sweeney had introduced me to a new tool called Collusion and my curiosity provided an opportunity to try it out.
Collusion is an add-on to the Firefox browser that makes painfully clear the extent of tracking and data sharing that happens while you are browsing the Web. (Firefox is a free browser produced by a non-profit. You can download it here. It takes less than five minutes to install. Adding Collusion is also free and takes just a few minutes.)
There is a lovely demo showing how Collusion works. You can repeatedly start from a clean slate and watch the advertising and marketing data sites tracking you anew as you click around even among the most innocent, noncommercial sites.
It turns out that there really aren't any noncommercial sites. We expect data to be collected when we browse the Amazon site, and shouldn't any more be surprised when our Amazon habits affect some aggregated view of who we are. But Harvard? Well, Harvard is not #1 in social media for nothing.
When I visited Harvard's home page, right away cookies from Twitter, Google, and Youtube appeared. (The last two are the same company.)
Fine. It's hard to avoid Google anyway. But as soon as I pulled down a menu and selected the Athletics link,
the picture exploded.
There are things you can do to fight tracking. See, for example, the PrivacyChoice site, which will direct you to some add-ons that can help. But awareness alone is valuable; at least as an experiment, install Firefox and Collusion, go about your normal business, and then check the tracking graph. You are being watched.