While public unease with the National Security Agency’s surveillance efforts continues to grow, there are new signs indicating that technology companies are also upgrading their efforts to track what you’re doing on the Internet.
According to a new report by Wired, companies like Microsoft and Google are developing increasingly sophisticated means of collecting consumer data online. The goal is to harvest the new data for advertising purposes, but, as noted in the article, there’s always concern that the NSA could gain access to and use the information for other purposes. NSA documents published by the Guardian already suggest that the agency could use ad data and cookies to help it find people who use the anonymous Tor browser.
“Users did not have much control in the cookie era,”Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit advocacy group in Washington, said to Wired.“But the problem is about to get much worse — tracking techniques will become more deeply embedded and a much smaller number of companies will control advertising data.”
Microsoft, in particular, is reportedly developing new tracking techniques that would be capable of recording when users transition from the web to apps, and even between separate devices, like PCs, tablets, phones, and video game consoles. According to AdAge,“Microsoft’s cookie replacement would essentially be a device identifier, meaning consumers could give permission for its advertising use when opting in to a device’s regular user agreement or terms of service.”
Asking for permission via a terms of service agreement sounds like a reasonable way of presenting the development to consumers, but chances are that the vast majority of users would agree simply because most services require it in order to function.
While the AdAge report notes that Microsoft’s system would only be available to authorized third parties, reports have shown the company working with the NSA to hand over consumer data in the past. Files released by Edward Snowden through the Guardian revealed that Microsoft helped the NSA work its way around the company’s encryption, gain access to the cloud storage system SkyDrive, and collect data accrued via Skype calls.
Additionally, even when the NSA has not been authorized to collect data by Microsoft, the agency has circumvented the company and collected it regardless.
When asked about its still-in-development tracking technology, a Microsoft spokesperson simply said,“Microsoft believes going beyond the cookie is important. Our priority will be to find ways to do this that respect the interests of consumers. We have nothing further to share.”
Whether or not anonymous systems like Tor will still be able to protect users against these new techniques is a question that has yet to be answered, but it's apparent that Microsoft isn’t the only company heading in this direction. Google is said to be developing a similar system, and Facebook has already begun tracking user behavior outside of the social network in order to sell targeted ads.
Although consumers are more concerned with the NSA’s surveillance program than being advertised to, recent outcry against Microsoft’s Xbox One video game console show that many will fight any new attempts to track their behavior. A separate AdAge report suggested that Microsoft’s Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer is open to using the new console’s Kinect camera to track user engagement with advertising, including recording biometric feedback such as heart rates, and releasing that data to marketers.
After receiving extremely harsh pushback from the public, Microsoft denied the report altogether as a misunderstanding. This much is clear, however: consumers are more concerned than ever over their privacy, and rolling out new tracking techniques could spark even more outrage.