Your computer is as unique as you are – charismatic, outgoing and sensitive. All jokes aside – a lot can be determined from a single machine. Think of your computer or cell phone as a true reflection of yourself, secrets included. Whether you use your computer for work or play, it knows when you wake up, where you’re taking your significant other for your anniversary or what you bought for an upcoming birthday party. It sounds scary, right? The truth is that marketers have been “spying” on users of computers, cell phones and other devices for years. By observing people’s behavior online, marketers can create detailed records of activities and interests then sell the information to advertisers for top dollar.
Although the idea of tracking people online is far from new, more advanced technologies that help identify users and their interests are emerging constantly, and they’re even more sophisticated. The newest thing is the digital equivalent of fingerprints. Called “the next generation of online advertising” and one of the most powerful emerging tools, fingerprinting creates a single reputation based on its user’s online behavior, shopping habits and even demographics. Until recently, fingerprinting was used mainly to prevent illegal copying of computer software or to thwart credit card fraud. Now, it’s in demand and being collected and sold by many, including David Norris, owner of BlueCava, Inc.
Norris has a plan, and he’s off to a good start. He wants to collect digital fingerprints from every computer, cell phone and TV set-up box in the world. So far, Norris has identified 200 million devices with hopes that by the end of next year, BlueCava will have catalogued one billion of the world’s estimated 10 billion devices. Although viewed by many as intrusive, advertisers who are looking for options outside of just buying ads are thrilled. Tracking companies are also embracing fingerprinting because it is much tougher to block than traditional and outdated tools used to monitor people online such as browser “cookies,” tiny text files on a computer that can be deleted.
Many are wondering just how intrusive fingerprinting can be. While ad companies are constantly looking for new techniques like fingerprinting to heighten their surveillance of Internet users, controversy is boiling over this so-called miracle tool as regulators are looking to rein it in quickly. The Federal Trade Commission has already requested a “do-not-track” tool for Web browsers and testing is being done elsewhere on more advanced tools like Deep packet inspection, a creepy method for peering inside digital traffic that moves between people’s computers and the Internet.
The scary part is that it’s tough for even sophisticated Web surfers and computer geeks to tell if their devices are being fingerprinted – even with modifications like updating software. Unfortunately, fingerprinting is semi-permanent until the government and companies like BlueCava, companies who are capitalizing on fingerprinting, have answers.
“We don’t have all the answers, but we’re just going to try to be really clear” about how the data is used,” said Norris. Others like Steel House, Inc, an advertising company enthusiastic about fingerprinting, agrees. “It’s almost like a revolution,” Steel House CEO, Mark Douglas, says. “Our intent is that it can completely replace the use of cookies.” Although the future of fingerprinting is uncertain, Norris says that collecting data through fingerprinting or other tools like cookies is “standard practice” in the online ad-business. Fingerprinting or not, companies are eager to learn about their customers or potential customers, their interests and what they’re doing online.
You decide if that’s a bad thing.