Blown To Bits

The Forces Align Against Anonymity

Saturday, April 17th, 2010 by Harry Lewis

Stories on successive days in the New York Times make me wonder if there is 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.

On Friday, there was some apparently happy news: At Internet Conference, Signs of Agreement Appear Between U.S. and Russia. It takes awhile to learn the nature of the common ground between American and Russian cybersecurity experts.

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

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

And then today, there is a stunning report on refinements in the business of discount coupons. The coupons you print off the Internet look generic, but the bar code may have everything but your social security number in it — even including your IP# and the search terms you used to get to the site where you printed the coupon. This information enables aggregation of extremely fine-grained information about your shopping habits — and adjustment of what offers get extended to which customers.

“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. (Mr. O’Neil said Filene’s did not do this at the moment.) …

“Over time,” Mr. Treiber said, “we’ll be able to do much better profiling around certain I.P. addresses, to say, hey, this I.P. address is showing a proclivity for printing clothing apparel coupons and is really only responding to coupons greater than 20 percent off.”

Is this the Internet we want?

5 Responses to “The Forces Align Against Anonymity”

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