Anonymity In Jeopardy: We’re Giving It Away

The NYTimes tells us, Web Coupons Know Lots About You, and They Tell. We redeemed 50 million of them last year. Little did we know:

The coupons can, in some cases, be tracked not just to an anonymous shopper but to an identifiable person: a retailer could know that Amy Smith printed a 15 percent-off coupon after searching for appliance discounts at Ebates.com on Friday at 1:30 p.m. and redeemed it later that afternoon at the store.

And we thought Google was bad:

“We’ve built privacy protections into all Google services and report Web site trends only in aggregate, without identifying individual users,” Sandra Heikkinen, a spokeswoman for Google, said in an e-mail message.

The retailers, however, can get to an individual level by sending different keyword searches to different Web addresses. The distinct Web addresses are invisible to the consumer, who usually sees just a Web page with a simple address at the top of it.

So clicking on an ad for Jackson Hewitt after searching for “new 2010 deductions” would send someone to a different behind-the-scenes URL than after searching for “Jackson Hewitt 2010,” though the Web pages and addresses might look identical. This data could be coded onto a coupon.

Facebook, too, has a bad privacy track record, but this isn’t their violation:

“When someone joins a fan club, the user’s Facebook ID becomes visible to the merchandiser,” Jonathan Treiber, RevTrax’s co-founder, said. “We take that and embed it in a bar code or promotion code.”

“When the consumer redeems the offer in store, we can track it back, in this case, not to the Google search term but to the actual Facebook user ID that was signing up,” he said. Although Facebook does not signal that Amy Smith responded to a given ad, Filene’s could look up the user ID connected to the coupon and “do some more manual-type research — you could easily see your sex, your location and what you’re interested in,” Mr. Treiber said.

Harry Lewis, a co-author of Blown to Bits: Your Life Liberty and Happiness After the Digital Explosion, read the coupon story after another one on Friday that reported this big point of agreement between the US and Russia at an Internet conference:

“Anonymity is an invitation to criminals,” General Miroshnikov said.

Mr. Baker agreed, saying, “Anonymity is the fundamental problem we face in cyberspace.”

It all leaves Lewis wondering if there’s any hope of preserving anonymity on the Internet:

The forces of security and commerce are lining up to end it, and I am not feeling a lot of pushback…. Is this the Internet we want?

Uh, to parrot a phrase… Not just no, HELL NO!

RELATED: SSRN — “How Different are Young Adults from Older Adults When it Comes to Information Privacy Attitudes and Policies?” From the abstract:

We conclude then that that young-adult Americans have an aspiration for increased privacy even while they participate in an online reality that is optimized to increase their revelation of personal data.

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