Last updateFri, 22 May 2020 12pm

Do online advertisers know more about us than we do ourselves?

The Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University seeks to bring together expertise in technology to better understand its impact on society.

The official website with the catchy name Freedom-to-Tinker.com archives the results of research, including the “No Boundaries” series which basically lays out that advertisers today know no boundaries when it comes to what personal information they seek to learn about us.

Simply visiting any website can give away a vast amount of information about you. The researchers at Princeton have performed an extensive scan of what happens in the background – unseen by the user – when visiting many of the most popular websites.

What they discovered may be disturbing to some of us.

There are two commercial companies identified so far – audienceinsights.net and behavioralengine.com – that claim they collect “only anonymous data through anonymous cookies and technologies.”  When the Princeton researchers looked closely at the computer programming code used by these two companies they were able to determine quite reliably just what kind of “anonymous” information those programs were designed to identify by collecting and collating your data from many other online sources.

The shortlist of what these two companies are able to find out about us includes age, date of birth, gender, nationality, height, weight, body mass index and eye color; location, postal code, city, state, country; relationship status; education; occupation; net income; investments, credit rating, loans, loan types, amounts, credit card use, including charge-backs and pets; vehicles, make, model, type, model year, registration and fuel type; insurance for car, home, health, life; tobacco/alcohol use, travel to/from, departure, and return …  There was a lot more but I stopped there because that last group of items got my attention.

While visiting recently in the United States I had made an online airline reservation.  I used a U.S. credit card, email address and phone number.  I point that out because my Mexican cellphone uses a different Mexican credit card, email address and phone number.  So far as I can see, all the information I gave to the airline and that used by my Mexican cellphone is entirely different, with no overlap except my name.  And I assure you Charles Miller is a very common name.  Still, when I looked at my calendar on my Mexican phone, Google had somehow figured out that the person who had purchased an airline ticket was the same one who used the Mexican cellphone, then automatically entered date, time, airline name and flight numbers on my calendar.

Soon enough I was going to start telling my friends where I would be traveling in Europe this year, but I just did not expect Google, a huge advertising agency, to get hold of my itinerary.  Without a doubt Google has already shared it with every advertiser on the internet.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant with more than 20 years IT experience and a Texan with a lifetime love for Mexico.  The opinions expressed are his own.  He may be contacted through his web site at SMAguru.com.

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