Facebook Beacon – Storm in a tea cup

Facebook are under fire for their user tracking software Beacon, which apparently not only tracks users on Facebook but also on “partner sites” too, and collates the data across these sites, to build up a bigger picture of their users. You can read a back ground to the story here

Whilst I don’t use Facebook, I’m not surprised by the story. There are more and more ways being invented all the time to track what you do and how you interact with sites. Google Analytics is a great example. This Beacon seems to go a bit far by collating data from other sites too, but from an advertiser / publisher / retailer perspective, knowing your customers better helps you to provide more targeted offers. I’m sure Beacon could be deployed to any website, is MySpace next?

I take the view that if you use the net, expect people to be watching and tracking what you do. Mostly it’s harmless, they are looking to see how you interact with their sites and so how they can improve your online experience, and of course maximise their income from you, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if they are offering you what you want. It’s not all about privacy and identity theft.

Simple webstats will tell you what url a visitor to your site came from. If you notice that a lot of visitors come from Site A, you may want to increase the number of adverts / articles / products on your site that cater for the kind of market that Site A attracts. What you’re less interested in is what any particular individual did, it’s trends that hold the valuable data. This benefits the website owner but also it benefits the visitor, as they get more of the things that interest them.

For example, if you regularly visit the Manchester United website, and from there go to the Football Association website, you’re not going to be interested in seeing adverts for cheap Liverpool shirts. But you may be interested in seeing adverts for cheap Manchester United shirts, or Manchester United game tickets, or Manchester United memorabilia. By tracking where it’s visitors come from, the FA site can provide a better experience to it’s visitors by offering them more content that they are interested in. This is a good thing!

I read somewhere some good advice recently – Don’t post anything on the internet, anywhere, that you wouldn’t be prepared to stick up on the public notice board of your local supermarket. I guess that also applies to a list of what websites you visit, and what you buy online.

My personal view is that people get far too upset and paranoid about these kinds of things. Take the recent loss of a disk with details of 25M child benefit records from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). This got the wife really worried as we’re on the list. But it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, here’s why:

1) The disk is lost, there’s no evidence or suggestion it was stolen and now in the hands of the Russia Mafia.
2) The database, whilst not specifically encrypted, was password protected.
3) The data holds information that most people have no problem giving away: Name, Address, DoB, Bank details etc. You give away that information freely every time you register for any service and pay by direct debit or cheque. I reckon there’s at least 50 organisations that have those details on me.
4) Those details do not allow someone to empty my bank account, they don’t know my password or PIN’s.
5) Everyone is automatically covered against Fraud by the banks. If someone fakes a cheque, it’s a pain, but not your fault so the banks will compensate you.
6) Then there’s the issue of scale, 25 MILLION records! A criminal gang would take a lifetime to work through even 0.1% of that number (25,000).
7) 90% of households throw more valuable personal data away in their rubbish every day. If I wanted to steal someone’s identity, I’d just walk down the street picking up bin bags, especially paper recycling bags.

In conclusion, Facebook’s Beacon is just the next thing on the list of things that will track your movements. As long as you’re careful about what you do online, you should have nothing to fear.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • welshtroll 14 December 2007, 9:15 pm

    beacon is/was a very sneaky attempt to obtain promotions for products that a user had bought without their consent. Nasty business.

    Facebook is just turning into a new myspace, yet it generate so much more junk emial than the former ever did.
    Be a zombie/vampire/werewolf/slayer
    Someone sent you a film/song/movies quiz

  • Colin McNulty 15 December 2007, 7:29 am

    I know a guy who makes his living by marketing inside MySpace and Facebook etc. You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he has several hundred profiles – all early 20’s pretty European girls of course.

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