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(photo credit: Courtesy Apple)
That "they" know all about us, we already know. So why not have some fun with "them?" And if they didn't already know enough already about out buying, surfing, eating, sleeping and who knows what else other habits, they're about to find out a lot more - courtesy of Google and your favorite social networking sites.
Until now, Facebook (http://www.facebook.com) has been the most popular social networking site, acting as a giant fishbowl for fame-starved twenty (and now teen)-somethings seeking a reason for being (clearly I am not a member!). Not that more level-headed thirty-plus somethings haven't gone for Web socializing, what with the popularity of LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com).
Facebook's popularity has spawned an ancillary industry, where developers produce Web applications that work in tandem with Facebook member's accounts. Thus, at http://tinyurl.com/yry9q2, we find dozens of such applications, such as "iLIke," which lets you integrate your music tastes with your Facebook friend list, and "Flixster," which lets you share movie ratings with friends. Applications like these make Facebook more useful and more fun - and more valuable to advertisers, as they now know what banner and text ads for music and movies to send to you and your friends.
Well, that advertising bonanza is coming to your LinkedIn account - and probably most other social networking sites you are a member of - courtesy of Google's new OpenSocial APIs (http://tinyurl.com/ynkthf), which will provide a single, common markup language for anyone who wants to write an application that will integrate with the various social networking sites that Google affiliates with (a bunch have signed up already, according to http://tinyurl.com/2rp7cx). And, to top it off, Google is letting anyone join the program with code to be eventually open-sourced.
Well, naturally - because with the APIs being hosted (or somehow linked, even if downloaded to remote servers) to Google, the giant search engine gets to suck in even more data about you and your Net social or employment circle. One of the charms of LinkedIn, for example, is that the amount of advertising on individual account pages is pretty minimal - and I can't imagine that users of future Google-based applications will stand for a more invasive site. Google Analytics, which will process the enhanced information data-mined by applications, will find the opportunity to send you the right ad, at the right time. And they have so many imaginative ways to collect information on you (http://tinyurl.com/2gww6h), there really is no way out of the loop if you're a Web user.
Lest you think I am socialist-type anti Web-ad anarchist, let me say this about that: I am not opposed to ads, I believe advertising can be and often is useful and interesting, and I certainly want Web sites that supply cool free services to survive with their current financial model (i.e. free). Ads are OK, and if they are for stuff I actually need, well, that's less time spent surfing and seeking products I would probably at some point be searching for anyway.
On the other hand... there is something depressing about being reduced to a "metric" - a mere statistic in among the billions consumed by Web analytic services and burped out into a "demographic," which some advertiser will use to try and sell me stuff. It makes me feel so - powerless would be the right word, I suppose. It really is time to exert a little control over the process.
There are several tried and true ways to do so. You can use an ad blocker, which will ban most of the critters from your browser; understand, though, that this does not stop them from collecting data about you. If and when (probably when) the Web-vertisers come up with a way to circumvent your blocker, they'll be all ready for you.
My idea is somewhat different - I just want to give them a hard time, to put up a little resistance to the whole of idea of being an easy target for data mining. Now, we have to be realistic, there is no way you can surf the Web without emitting some kind of information, whether a cookie, an IP address, or a login/password to a Web site service. But it would be enough just to throw a monkey wrench into the system - to make the analytics a little less accurate. We can't beat 'em, and will probably end up joining them - but until then, maybe we can mess with their minds a bit. It's liberating - we get to assert ourselves just a bit - and it's fun, too!
The easiest and most effective way to do this is by employing a proxy (http://digital.newzgeek.com/old/The-Proxy-Life1.html). It's an effective way of hiding your location, as well as other pertinent information, and will likely cause the analytics engines responsible for the Web ads you see on various sites to throw a fit, wildly firing out ads that may or not be geared for your demographic. However, proxies can be a hassle, because you often have to manually change them, as good ones tend to work slowly - because so many people are trying to use them to hide their on-line identities!
There is a program, however, that will take care of your proxy problems automatically and invisibly - with the added benefit of making your computer a "citizen of the world," with your identity shifting back and forth between the US, Germany, France, Japan, China and dozens of other countries. The program, called Tor (http://www.torproject.org/), which makes no bones about its purpose: to "defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships and state security."
Now that's what I'm talking about! Basically, Tor is P2P system of proxies, where users who install the program are automatically assigned a proxy through which they "tunnel" into the Internet. But you don't connect directly to a server; you connect to other users in the network, all running, like you, an "onion proxy" (the idea being you move from layer to layer through the network), until your connection reaches the proxy (exit) server from where your connection to whatever site or service you are trying to reach is made (to prevent DNS leaks and other data integrity problems, Tor is usually bundled with other applications and should be used in a specific way, as outlined at http://tinyurl.com/7l8bc).
Setting up Tor is easy and relatively painless (and if you use Firefox, you can set up a plug-in which does everything automatically with one click). Tor is not perfect - although it is used by many people seeking to hide from the authorities in countries where surfing the wrong sites can get you in deep trouble - but for our purposes, it's more than enough. With Tor changing its tunnel and proxy exit configuration possibly many times during a session, you will completely confuse the analytics engines looking to sell you stuff. Free at last!