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Case Study: The Sigh Of Our Times

“The amount of control you have over somebody if you can monitor Internet activity is amazing” — Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web By Meera Seth

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Amrita nalpat watched her favourite chef cook a simple dish: dal fry. More than the dish, she loved the chef for his peppy ways. Amrita wanted to make this a health recipe but also retain Chef Sanjay’s ‘double tadka’ as he called it. That came around the 4th minute on the YouTube video... Amrita did not fast forward the video. She was idly watching Sanjay’s antics and fun talk.

Just then, a strip ad disturbed her view. Home Elves (it said) would come home and do your intense cleaning, your carpets, your beauty treatments, even send you a kitchen assistant for your parties…

Amrita paused her video to hold the ad. It was just a lazy response to an idle moment. Right clicking on it, she opened the ad on a new tab, while Chef Sanjay was left ‘frozen’ with a funny expression of how tasty the dal would be with the double tadka.

Amrita was now in the strange new world of Home Elves. Little did she know that like Hansel and Gretel, she had left a train of breadcrumbs for home elves to find her. But Home Elves was quickly marketing to her its range of services from beauty to housekeeping to hygiene. Amrita was swept off her feet, her footprints intact on the sands of the Internet.

Amrita had been found!

A little self-conscious over her impetuous clicking, Amrita exited the pages.

But had the page left Amrita? She had unwittingly let in a lurking cookie to do its scavenging... Amrita went to Chef Sanjay’s Facebook to see if he had posted images of the dal, when something disturbingly familiar arrested her. An ad for House Elves sat on her Facebook page. How come, she thought. They seem to be everywhere, she mused innocently.

Now, Amrita was a food blogger who wrote for some foods companies to promote some essential thoughts on milk, chocolate, wheat biscuits, and how to use these effectively in prepared foods. She had been thinking about some mails that she received from some followers who wrote to her to say that they wondered why she had ads for colon cleansing and weight loss and obesity teaser ads. But she didn’t! She knew her pages…. Amrita began to feel surreal.

Amrita had also noticed ads on Chef Sanjay’s blogs but they were decent food equipment and appliances ads. No colon cleansing, for instance. Today when she opened her blog, she gagged to see an ad for cellulitis and stretch marks. Was she just beginning to notice or…

Delaware, the food company for whom she wrote had sent her a sweet message neither asking nor telling but just saying, ‘You should find a way to control the ads on your pages.’ Was all this a coincidence or was she paranoid?

Amrita met her cousin Naman and discussed her situation. “I browse a lot.... It is all a part of the blogs I write,” she shared with him. “But today when Delaware told me, ‘wish you would control the ads on your pages’, what do you think they meant? Am I contributing to what is on my page, maybe?

Naman: That Internet is an alternate world. All the ploys of the world of sight and sound, happens there as well. We tend to think we are hidden, that we can’t be seen, we can’t be known…. Aisa nahi hai. Every site you visit marks you for attention.

Amrita: What do you mean?

Naman: By even visiting a page, you are ‘subscribing’ to their world. You become their consumer. While you may think you cannot be seen, lots of companies are watching your behaviour. They follow you online, oh yes, they do! They stick cookies into your browser and ad networks watch your behaviour and where you go, what sites you visit. Whatever you do, whatever you see, watch, hear, is collected, stored, analysed, then built into a profile and this is sold to people who want to buy this information.

Why, smartphone apps can turn on the camera and microphone when they want to. How? When you initialise your smartphone, have you not noticed that no app can be initiated till you permit them to access everything on your phone? If you decline, then that’s it. You can’t move ahead. WhatsApp for instance asks to be permitted to record audio. You decline and you can’t make calls! So by accepting, you have granted them permission to do what they wish. So, this is how they track your moves and choices and sell this to advertisers….

Amrita heard wide-eyed and stunned. “How does this even help?”

Naman: All these networks develop consumer profiles using the tracking data. This helps people who want to advertise on the Internet, people who have online stores and want to attract you to come there and shop. Facebook does it too and almost everyone is on Facebook all the time. They all have access to your browsing history. To all the cute cookies your browser is studded with. Earlier FB stayed within the realms of its digital boundaries. Now, it has bought WhatsApp, and it has access to your other apps as a result. Then, think of all those innocent looking stories with a thumbs-up at the end asking you to vote for or against? All those thumbs you click are little invitations to be tracked.

Amrita: But they have never told me they are using my information!

Naman: You would have come across sites that put out caveats like: This site uses cookies from Google to personalise ads or analyse net traffic. The information about how you use this site will be shared with ad networks. By using this site you agree to its use of cookies…. But of course, there are many sites that follow you stealthily… they won’t warn you.

Amrita: I never thought I was vulnerable to this extent! This is so complex!

Naman: Ok, let me give you an example: Say, I go to some news website in the morning, to Twitter in the afternoon and at night, say, some movie site, and also a slew of other online shopping sites; They are all capturing info about me, whether legally or in stealth mode, you can never tell. So finally, the legality does not even count for anything.

Amrita: And a cookie would be a piece of software?

Naman (reading from the Internet): A cookie is a small piece of text sent to your browser by a website you visit. It helps the website to remember information about your visit, like your preferred language and other settings. That can make your next visit easier and the site more useful to you. But cookies track much more about you for sure!

Amrita: What are third party ad networks?

Naman: Google is, Facebook is, InMobi is. The last one is a company focused on mobile ads. So, whatever sites I watch on my smartphone, its software will track my IP…

InMobi is all pervasive. There is a software, which has already gleaned that Naman is visiting every morning. But Naman is also visiting a beer portal every morning before hitting the NDTV site. That analytics will be given to the advertiser saying, you have 300,000 users, we have their data base, they are also beer consumers, we will get you advertising from beer manufacturers. Inmobi, Google, etc., are thus brokers between different sites and they collect payment from them. They use their analytics to monitor who visits what and when. This is fundamentally the building block for all online marketing.

Tech companies like Google, InMobi, etc., because of their technology are disrupting the advertising business — earlier these companies did not exist isn’t it? You had print media companies, ad agencies, consumers and TV channels. But these disrupting new technology players offer to news or online shopping websites, for instance, effective ways of driving relevant traffic suited to their website at just the time when people are searching for products like theirs, based on the analytics they have gleaned from browsing behaviours. Because they have these analytics and their expertise is in placing ads, they will also tell Heineken (beer) that I will ensure Naman sees your ad.

Amrita: So, tell me, the ads I see on my page, on my FB page, on many websites I visit, will be a function of the sites I visit and my searches?

Naman: Every activity you do on the net is tracked starting from websites you visit, your Google searches, content of your email (it is not read by humans but by machines), links you click, etc. These activities are logged against your machine IP address. In some cases, if you are logged onto your web accounts like Google, Firefox, Chrome, Safari then it is tracked based on your IP address and your user ID. This information is later used to display customised ads, shopping options, etc.

This is what they call interest-based advertising.

But much more is going on that you do not even know. For instance, retailers want to know customer footfall patterns by location. The best way to capture this data is via free apps — whatever your smartphone allows — such as weather apps, for instance. Or even those that allow you to log into all of your email accounts and control them with a unified inbox. Typically they ask you for location and you unwittingly provide it. In turn, they share it with the developer who will sell it. It has been found that it is rather easy to track your location. For instance, three weeks ago, when you wrote to me asking about the Mahindra SUV that you were considering, you received a letter from an insurance agent, remember? How come? He was Pune based too…. How did he know? Or was it a coincidence?

How come when I was due for my annual medical check-up I was receiving mails from hospitals in my area? How did they know I live in Rajaji Nagar? Not coincidence! Fact is, I had written to my hospital online, with preferred dates. Anything you do on the computer is like an announcement in the marketplace. It is picked up, processed and passed on.

Already, so much about you is out there and all digitally. It is so easy to profile you. You go for an AMC, you are on the hospital records. You pay taxes, you are on the Revenue records. You buy property, you are in the district records. You buy clothes at Westside, and he innocuously asks you for your number…. Your credit card, and so on… the apps you use… all tell your story. Now add Facebook. If you have 10 friends (at the minimum), their stories are added to yours and your profile grows richer! Now, you access FB on your smartphone and you are raw material for a marketer!

Will you believe me if I said that just these little things we put out about ourselves out there have contributed to becoming a multi-billion dollar business called personal data tracking? There are eager beavers who painstakingly track you with just one thread of information about you and tie you up into a parcel with your precise data gathered from all the places you visited.

Then look at behaviour. When I go to Amazon and browse for a book, they quietly place below, my last many views calling it, ‘inspired by your browsing history’. You may say that is simple. Even useful. Yes, but useful for them first and that is why they tracked you. So, these sites are not just enabling your shopping but they are also watching you as you shop. And alongside they are putting you into neatly labeled little boxes such as: likes humour, shops for kitchen accessories, has 3 addresses, blogger, sports enthusiast, likely vegetarian, pet owner...

Amrita grew thoughtful. Was the net a prowler? A spy? A stealer of personal info? What was she doing blogging, thinking she was earning and enabling the food businesses of the world? How vulnerable a consumer is, the minute she gets on the net! Whatever she touches, she stands exposed, and your data is just being collected and you have no choice.

Amrita now recalled with a sinking feeling that she had been seeing ads for birth control methods. She had never searched for anything even within that realm, then…? She felt a knot in her stomach as it occurred to her that her daughter shared the laptop with her. Pushing aside threatening thoughts she told Naman, “I guess if you even search for a medical condition they assume you are a prospective patient, then?”

Naman: Without a doubt. There is a concept called data vacuuming. It is a name applied to companies like FB, Google, ad networks, InMobi…. Think of them as walking around with a vacuum cleaner, mopping up any scrap of data about you. With the help of all this data they know how to manipulate us.

For example, how often we ‘Google’ a medical query. You could well be doing that search for a totally impersonal reason. So while you may think you are doing a covert search, the queries we ask are being tracked and the data is being sent to these data miners and even to insurance companies. It is a real bummer.

Ok, let me do a dummy search for say ‘ankylosing spondylitis’. Here …. It throws up 23.9 lakh search results. Some top results are WebMD, Medical News Today, Medicine Net, Mayo Clinic…. As well as some dictionary sites that give you meanings of these conditions. Now, I go to the foot of my page and hello! What do I see? My IP address is showing there in grey, something you will clearly miss. But all these companies that are collecting and trapping data are building statistics. Ok, so they won’t know your name but that is ok. Anonymous profiling works. So, they get to know that someone from Pune was looking up ankylosing… These sites have the most tracking elements. I have read that if you click on any of these sites you will be tracked, in turn, by over a dozen tracking companies.

Some of the analytic companies have free plugins that web developers install on sites. It is free, so they install them, but these analytic companies are not doing that for fun. There is money in the resultant data!

Amrita: So, I am raw material. I am data in process. I am choiceless and all this nonsense about technology being an enabler, etc ., is rubbish because it is only enabling businesses at the cost of the individual’s privacy!

Naman: You could say that ….

Amrita: I blog for companies, ok? I see a lot of irrelevant ads on my pages. Some of the companies I write for told me, “We wish you could control the ads on your pages...” Can I?

Naman: Irrelevant ads on pages are common. Each ad space on a website is like billboard space on highway. It is purchased by some merchant to display his ads. Some merchants are smart and focus showcasing dynamic ads based on customer’s preference and history. Others may just show what they like. It is a crowded space and a lot of factors go in. It also depend on pricing models. Some merchants outsource to large groups like Google and Yahoo to generate dynamic ads. Others do it with small groups but focus on static ads.

You will have to reach out to brands directly and let them fix the brand patronage. There is this chap, Madhur Sharma. He runs Clever Cleaver. Dependable fellow they say. Meet him. He might help you get your ads right. so, Amrita met Madhur and shared with him her plight.

Madhur: As I see it, the ads you are seeing are a function of what you visit during the day. Then again, ad networks make assumptions. Because yours is a cookery blog, the assumption is this must be visited by women, women who are either home officers or not working. And that these women are all interested in cleaning and repair and (owing to some stupid deduction), in obesity, weight loss and family planning.

Amrita: If this modern tech age is so cool, then people need to be smart too. Even a spiritual website I go to, to read Indian knowledge tradition and... ok, let us do a quick sampler.

And Amrita did a random search on “Seeking Brahman” on her laptop and the first result (out of 12,40,000) was Two ads presented there: Urban Ladder (“and I have never bought furniture!”) and Make my Trip (“I have never booked a ticket in my life, my husband does all that.”) Now, you tell me!

Even as they were watching, the ad changed to Veet hair removing strips.

“See?” said Amrita. “What has Pure Consciousness got to do with trips and furniture, or even hair removal? It is that absurd!

Madhur: So, those ads have nothing to do with what you are reading, but what you read before, what site you visited earlier, what searches you did before that. Likely you wrote about fibre in food and bingo, you got colon cleansers. On a different note, the ad networks usually do not have anything to feed your spiritual quest. So they will put in whatever they fancy, such as weight loss or hair removal.

Leave this for a day, I will get back with some food advertisers. Once you fix the spots for them, no more colon cleansers, mark my words.

back home, Amrita found her husband in the study. “Can you open my blog and show me what ads you see there?” she said and that was when she noticed a piece of electrical tape on Suraj’s webcam. “Broken?” she asked.

Suraj: No… I heard Mark Zuckerberg tapes over his webcam and audio jack too…. What am I? They can hack in anyway these days. But this has always been there; you are seeing this now?

Amrita: You are not joking?

Suraj: I am serious. I read on Wired that one should cover the webcam with a sticker or tape. See this, ‘even marginally skilled malicious users can gain access to your computer…’.

It is a well-known fact that laptops, desktop computers, tablets and mobile phones can all be hacked. I have heard that hackers can use your device camera to take pictures of you, your home, etc., even hack into your microphone and listen to your conversation! I think somewhere while saying ‘I Accept’ we gave them all permission to take over our lives!

Read Analysis: Rajiv Batra | Govind Pandey | Anshul Sushil