In the past I have been known to use dictionary.com and thesaurus.com. Not anymore. I distinctly remember visiting dictionary.com a few weeks ago. It was the first visit since upgrading my OS and browser. I was shocked by how sluggish it was to load. I remember opening another tab and doing a search for other dictionary sites because I got tired of waiting. I now know why.
“The top venue for such technology, the Journal found, was IAC/InterActive Corp.’s Dictionary.com. A visit to the online dictionary site resulted in 234 files or programs being downloaded onto the Journal’s test computer, 223 of which were from companies that track Web users.”
No wonder dictionary.com takes so long to load, it’s installing a hidden payload, an army of files on your computer for third party tracking companies.
“Whether it’s one or 10 cookies, it doesn’t have any impact on the customer experience, and we disclose we do it,” says Dictionary.com spokesman Nicholas Graham. “So what’s the beef?”
One or ten? What about over 200?
This is a worrying sign. I can understand that websites like dictionary.com need to generate revenue, but when groups of salesmen get together and come up with schemes like auctioning off your information in bundles on the open market labeled as “audience data” I find it a little disturbing. Bluekai.com is one of these companies and claims to be:
“the center of the digital data economy and the largest auction marketplace for all audience data.”
The term audience data makes me feel uneasy, but there is something I find more worrying. This is an unregulated industry, and there are profits involved. Companies like this claim to collect information on you anonymously, meaning that they don’t store your name, DOB etc.. but what if the company also has say… an application integrated with facebook, or data scrapers on other websites. Cross referencing its tracking codes would not be difficult. I guess it depends how much you care about marketing sites and audience data sites profiling you and your web habits.
I am obviously not the only person concearned about this. Disturbingly, I recently learned via slashdot that a privacy activist has filed a lawsuit against MTV, ESPN, MySpace, Hulu, ABC, Scribd, Quantcast and others aledging that the sites use a form of zombie “flash cookie” that recreates itself even if users have gone out of their way to delete it. In other words, these sites are basically installing viruses with the specific aim of tracking what you do on line. Whether it is the companies and corporations listed directly or third parties using their sites as launch vehicles to get access to you, they all benefit.
One of the problems with flash is, if someone wants to, they can code it to do pretty much whatever they want using its ActionScript language. Somehow I doubt the guys collecting information on you have any dignity or respect for your privacy. Especially when $23 billion was spent on this form of marketing last year. I can’t help but think of leaches waiting on low hanging branches waiting for you to brush past so they can jump on and suck your blood!
One of the great things about the web is its anonymity. I don’t like the idea of a website knowing my demographic when I show up and how much extra they can charge me for an airline ticket. The volume of drive by trackers being installed on peoples computers is alarming.
It is going to be an ongoing battle to remain anonymous online, and if you don’t want companies trying to sell you the latest weight loss system because you once looked up obesity, or governments flagging you as a terrorist because you read the wrong article, you should be concerned about privacy online too.
Update: Here’s an alternative to Dictionary.com: thefreedictionary.com. It also has the nifty feature of allowing you to enter the word at the end of your URL. Like this: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/word