Be careful what you search for. It may come back to haunt you.
Think of cyberspace as lightly snow-covered. Every step you take leaves a trace. Collectively they show where you’ve been and where you’re going. The analogy is imperfect. Footprints in snow get obliterated. Data on the internet never does.
“Personal information leaked from smart phones is being trafficked online,” says Josei Jishin (March 28). One housewife the magazine speaks to found that out the hard way.
On a smartphone search site, she input “high-paying part-time jobs” – only to be almost instantly inundated with ads from erotic entertainment establishments. It was irritating at first, and then, as the inundation continued, a little frightening. It became something even more than that when her small child happened to catch a glimpse of the screen and asked, “Mommy, what’s that?”
Personalized advertising is a key feature of online commerce. Businesses naturally want to direct their ads to people likely to be interested in them. In order to do that, they must know who’s interested in what. They must know what you’re interested in; and in order to do that, they must watch you.
In a manner of speaking, of course. It’s not personal surveillance. Whether impersonal surveillance is less ominous is for each individual to decide. Do the benefits outweigh the real or perceived lack of privacy? Every purchase you make online – every item you look at, in fact – leaves an impression, as personalized buying recommendations based on those impressions make home. The recommendations are convenient for the consumer and profitable for the producer – a win-win situation, if the eerie feeling of being watched doesn’t bother you. If it does – well, too bad.
Or to take another example the magazine raises: you’re surfing marriage counseling sites, hoping to be introduced to a marriageable partner. It’s a delicate matter; maybe you’d want this to be just between you and the site. But marriage, romantic to the protagonists, is big business to the periphery, and the periphery is vast. If you’re contemplating marriage, you’d be naturally interested in certain kinds of products. Purveyors of those products want you to know them. To make sure you do, they must, to a certain extent, know you.
Ad agencies and other enterprises, explains Masami Kitada, president of Everysense Japan, bid big money for the right to scour search engines for “big data.” Everysense, on its website, describes its own function as “information harvesting.” “Sensor data,” it says, “will be anonymized, cleared from any personal identifiable information before delivering to the companies who want to use the data for their own purposes.”
“Many people wonder uneasily,” Kitada admits, “how third parties come to know what they’ve been searching for.”
It sounds vaguely subversive, but in fact, he explains, there’s nothing illegal about it – as you’d know if you read (as few people do) the terms of agreement you routinely agree to as a prelude to becoming active on a site. There’s almost always a clause amid the usually voluminous fine print setting forth the limits to the privacy the naïve take for granted. It’s so pervasive that declining to agree would in effect sideline you from the internet.
Just how invasive this sort of thing can be, or at least feel, came to light in 2013, when it appeared that JR East Japan was selling passenger flow data to businesses eager to know, for marketing purposes, how many people of what ages and which genders embarked and disembarked at various stations. Public revulsion was such that JR East stopped the practice. Companies then seemed to grow wary of involving themselves in data trafficking. But did the practice really fall off, Josei Jishin wonders, or did it merely grow more secretive?© Japan Today