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Do Not Track = Baloney

DNT epitomizes bullshit. Making money on the Internet is a thin-margin operation, and data on what you’re likely to do or want based on how you and everyone else has behaved helps widen that margin. It’s extremely valuable information and the likes of Google and lately Microsoft and Facebook are getting quite good at mining it.

But enough people have read 1984 or at least heard the term Big Brother to find that spooky or even evil, and politicians and “consumer watchdog” groups have harnessed that to lay some heat on the bigger players. So, in 2009 some idealists came up with an idea to make the world better by modifying the language your browser speaks to servers so that it can include a declaration that you’d prefer not to be “tracked” in any way, leaving the server the option to behave differently, or not.

Mozilla with their Firefox and Microsoft with their Internet Explorer faced with the threat of Google with their fabulous web browser eating up the market and Google faced far more than either of them with the threat of, for one reason or another, not being able to mine data as prodigiously, and also likely seeing that it’s a bunch of BS anyway that could score some points with Joe 1984, pounced on it and adopted it into their browsers. Under elevated pressure, even though already having been providing an actually-effective means for surfers not to be tracked as much (Chrome’s Incognito mode, which is Italian for the Latin for not to get to know), Google followed suit. Microsoft actually first set IE to default to having this setting on (I think as an FU sort of joke to Google).

Why I think it’s bullshit: Firstly, that Google elected to do this should tell you something, a move that at first glance you’d think would take away some of their bread and butter. Secondly, if I’m a website and I want data on what break pads you just bought and my advertisers want to know that too, and a million other things many of which are actionable to making more money and building traffic (admittedly we haven’t quite mastered it ourselves), why would I go way out of my way, under no legal obligation, to figure out how to (or hire someone to) serve you a modified website that makes sure not to instruct your browser not to do anything involving other servers out of my control and also purges its own logs containing what and when your mouse button clicked and what it did in response? Because you checked a box you didn’t really understand? I wouldn’t do that. I very likely would not do that. Hell the proponents of DNT can’t even agree on what tracking means.

Hell, even the loudest consumer watchdog group always breaking Google’s balls not only was tracking on their server like everybody else, they were actually, and this is the height of irony and hypocrisy when it comes to the Internet, were using Google Analytics to track visitors to its site. Not kidding. Another thing I’m not kidding about, your IP address is probably [user_ip]. Hope you don’t mind if I hang onto it. You would not believe how much data we have on you people. Even your damn screen resolution, it’s nuts.

How the web works is a tricky thing to conceptualize for the average person. Try asking your father what a web browser is. Try asking anyone. Odds are you don’t have that great an understanding, frankly. When people hear “do not call list” they get the idea, more or less, that if they’re on that list they won’t get as many unsolicited calls during dinner. So, when they see a Do Not Track checkbox in their browser’s settings, if they ever happen to go there in the first place, they figure why not, check the box, I won’t be spied on. And then what? And then nothing will change in reality other than that they’re wasting a few extra bytes of data each hit they make and no one gives a shit, and they have no idea how ineffective that checkbox is because even if they had a vague understanding of the web they wouldn’t know whether or not they are being tracked. Nothing changes except Microsoft has the ability to claim they’re privacy advocates because you’re none the wiser.

It is possible to hide your tracks fairly well on the Internet but, depending on how aggressively you approach it, it may break certain things on websites you visit (namely things involving Javascript, which is a lot of things) and if you go all-out tinfoil hat it will slow everything way, way down. Here’s how you do it: Google and install the following: Adblock+, Flashblock, Ghostery, NoScript, Tor, turn off your browser cookies, get rid of the wireless keyboard, memorize all the IP addresses of the websites you frequent so that you’re not telling yet another server what websites you’re trying to visit, encrypt your hard drive with TrueCrypt, use DriveLock, don’t waste your time checking this silly Do Not Track setting, get a 3M Privacy Filter thing for your screen, don’t log into anything, make damn sure one way or another that you’re not infected with anything, and now my friend you’re getting into the neighborhood of web anonymity. Happy now? Is life better?

The browsers have this setting to take heat off of companies from various manifestations of privacy alarmism and you know what the setting does not do shit. Even on this small happy site you feel like you can trust not only are we tracking you on our server, Google is helping us track you and in turn is effectively tracking you themselves, Twitter, Facebook, all the people behind these Like and social buttons, they’re tracking you too, WordPress is tracking you because we also use them for stats because we think Google Analytics might be lying to us, we have Webalizer and Awstats churning out the pie charts too on the server, we have the actual raw logs, I personally am tracking you on every article I write with a hotlinked blank image to my own server that I just stare at narcissistically every time I hit publish — do you get the idea pal? That’s what we all subject ourselves to on the web, there are ways around it but they make the web suck the more you employ them and the vast majority of people won’t employ any of these measures because they don’t care or know what’s going on. And even if they did, there would still be enough people to extrapolate from to get a pretty clear idea of the big picture.

I’d tell you something like “sorry if you don’t like how we’re tracking you here but we like tracking our visitors and we’re going to keep doing it so if you don’t want to be tracked you can go to” but will track you much, much better than we do. I don’t even know how we could stop tracking you altogether if I wanted to and one thing not on my to do list for today is to figure out how. If we were a public company, I’m not even sure it would be legal not to track you as it would involve destroying data. Do Not Track is bullshit, it will remain completely ineffective and the data miners will only get better at what they do. If you can’t handle the data mining, either take some major tranquilizers to take your persecutory delusions down a notch, install all that crap I mentioned or, here’s an idea, go outside.

But leave your phone and wear a ski mask.

Doug Simmons