« | Home | »

Google And The CIA Invest In “Temporal Analytics Engine”

Topics: Technology | Add A CommentBy admin | July 31, 2010

Google and the CIA may sound like strange bedfellows, but not in an era in which the ad industry is building “databases of intentions” based on your surfing habits. Learn how “harmless” sites like Dictionary.com are tracking where you surf, and what you type while you’re there. And how to prevent it.

Love it or hate it (and in spite of occasionally hilarious results) the Google auto-complete feature can be uncannily accurate when guessing the rest of what you’ll type. So wouldn’t it be great if in the future, Google would know what you’re searching before you even search for it? If this sounds more like the movie Minority Report to you than reality, you should take a look into the kind of marketing and data mining methods that are in common usage on the web. For those of you who miss the “Big Brother” vibe of the Bush era and the Patriot Act, ponder this: Google and the CIA are both investing in a company called Recorded Future that “goes beyond search” to “visualize the future, past or present” using what Recorded Future calls a “Temporal Analytics Engine”. Although a disturbing alignment of interests, this isn’t so far from what other companies are already doing. Dig deep into the links in the recent WSJ feature What They Know to learn about who’s poking and prodding your browser, and which tracking technologies are at work. The days of simple cookies are over; these services use Bugs, Beacons and Flash Cookies (more on these insidious Adobe doodads below) not only to store information about which sites you visit, but even what you type while you’re there, or in the case of Flash Cookies, to re-insert the conventional cookies you’ve deleted without telling you! And we’re talking about “harmless” sites that you visit all the time, like Dictionary.com and CNN. While one might argue that you’d be happy to be served up ads based on the things you actively look at – which is a big part of what the intention is with these technologies – there are a few problems with that line of thinking. First of all, for people like me, this is an utterly useless approach; I do a lot of research looking at things that really don’t interest me. So when I write a piece about the billions being made by Farmville, for instance, I then get fed a constant stream of REALLY dumb ads targeting people who play web-based games and shop at Walmart. Another problem is that these third party services are often based on predictive marketing, and attach your data in ways that really DO very nearly identify you specifically with IP addresses and other information. BlueKai, for instance, is “aggregating valuable shopping and research behaviors across the Internet” to build “the world’s largest database of intentions”. Yes. You read that right. A “database of intentions”. If this stuff doesn’t trouble you, try putting what these companies are doing in a real-world scenario. Imagine going to the mall, buying something at The Gap, and then having a little attendant walk up and say “I’m just going to follow you around and watch what you buy, so we can improve your experience here at the mall today”. That would of course be annoying and unsettling, but wouldn’t it be even creepier if you knew a team of attendants were doing it with remote surveillance techniques? Below are some basic tips for easily blocking these rather invasive marketing tools.

If you’re using Firefox, tracking and blocking basic cookies is super easy with Ghostery. After you download and install it as a plugin, it shows you what services are tracking you, offers a link explaining what they do, and options for blocking or not blocking them. Ghostery is partnered with Better Advertising, which “was founded to ensure that the advertising industry’s voluntary initiatives meet the needs of consumers, government and advertisers”. Ghostery provides fairly unobtrusive little tabs to display and manage tracking activity:

Flash Cookies

These are a little trickier, and insidious enough that they’ve inspired a lawsuit. You can’t actually control these directly on your computer, even though the Adobe software that makes them work is installed on your computer. You have to go to this page on Adobe’s site, and use the rather confusing tool they’ve provided. It’s confusing enough that they provide a note that says “The Settings Manager that you see above is not an image; it is the actual Settings Manager. Click the tabs to see different panels, and click the options in the panels to change your Adobe Flash Player settings“. When I went to the page, I quickly got an alert box like this:

When I told it to keep running, it eventually did this:

When I finally got it working, the choices were a little confusing, like this one.

And after all this talk about companies trying to guess my future actions, this threw me for a second: