I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with an account manager at a major internet search company and ask him a few questions regarding digital footprints and how search providers are using the information they collect. For confidentiality reasons I am not able to provide my contact’s name or employer.
Overall how can people control their digital footprint in search and other online locations like social networking sites?
While public figures may have a harder time controlling the information on them, average internet users of average public standing can and should use their privacy settings to reduce access to their active digital footprint (information that the user actively disseminates).
Isn’t “big search” like Big Brother, tracking our every move?
No. Like all website cookies enable us to tracking site visits and recent online behavior, but we cannot, and do not, identify the actual individual and we do not release any information.
Sites like MySpace are able to track age, gender and geographic location, but that is the extent of our targeting capabilities.
What about behavioral targeting. When I open an email, why do I get ads based on the content of my email?
We aren’t able to behavioral target–yet. When you open an email, email providers use “bots” to scan the content of the message to identify key phrases and call up ads that might be relevant to you. This information is not tied to the user and is not shared with outside the organization.
But you are still collecting information on “me,” right?
To an extent. We can only look at information at an aggregate level. Meaning, we compile your information with that of other users. It’s not just search companies that do this. Anyone that uses analytical tools to monitor the activity on their website is aggregating information to understand when and where visitors are sourced from, and so on.
How is my IP addressed used to track me?
IP address are only useful for geographical targeting. They do not connect the search company or website to the users name, age, or gender.
I have been trying to better understand the generational differences relating the attitudes toward digital footprints. Do Gen Y and Gen X behave differently?
All the data suggests that Gen X and Gen Y are basically on par with their online activity. Specially the data collected on users of [one of our major sites] shows very little variance between the two generations. It basically mirrors US population. The difference comes when you when you start looking at those older than Gen X; the 45+ crowd.
Do you think the government will ever pass legislative privacy protection for internet users, like they have with analog communications?
Identify theft has become a big issue in the recent decade. I do think the government will need to pass blanket legislation, like Sarbaines-Oxley (SOX) to protect online users.