Youth Data Mining 101: Privacy Breaches, Opt-Outs, ToolBar Add-Ons

“Holy data-sucking, Batman!” (no, not one of the boy wonder’s bat quotes…but it should be…)

In this SkypeJournal article called Batman, the Surveillance Society and Moral Design, the mobile-phone powered surveillance state of the Dark Knight movie is not so far off from reality right this very second.

SkypeJournal blogger Phil Wolff asks, “If industry has the power to both enable private surveillance and prevent it, where do its obligations lay? As citizens, what is our responsibility?”

That little nugget of profoundity sums up my current techno-war with all gizmos, including ‘automatic upgrades’ infiltrating my system and compromising my ‘user experience’ to the point that I just want to toss the ol’ laptop into the ocean and swing in a hammock at my eco-sanctuary in Roatan.

In the last 24 hours alone, my Firefox auto-install-upgrade added a Yahoo Toolbar without asking, (here’s how to remove it) Microsoft closed a gazillion open tabs and work in progress in the middle of the night (thank goodness for the CopyURLs add-on I use, since “restore session” doesn’t apply when accessed from an e-mail link) AND now it’s “please update to WordPress 2.6″ time already, which is über-overkill and annoying to boot…

…Particularly since my last WP upgrade changed the usability of the editor, inserted gobbledygook punctuation into prior posts, fouled up my tags AND RSS feeds while mysteriously (causal link loss?) plummeting 100 points in Technorati ‘blog authority’ overnight. (I’ll never understand that system for the life of me)…

Stuart Henshall, founder of SkypeJournal fumed to Jaxtr:

“You added me to the new beta Cafe Jaxtr without my permission. Even exposing my real name and showing me on other peoples contact pages as I tried to click and understand what you were trying to do. What does that mean? It means I clicked on topics people are talking about and then on individuals. Now they think I am interested in talking to them. Not a chance.”

Wow. Talk about profile pilfering and data-jacking…

The arrogance of these companies is astounding!

Why aren’t kids flaming corporate corruption or launching text bombs deriding this ongoing data war?

Oh, yah, right, many of them are unaware of it. Silly me.

Kids have had auto toolbars pop up from A to Zwinktopia and the cookies and data-mining are so pervasively tied to every keystroke, the digital fingerprints are astounding.

C’mon, knock off this nonsense, marketers, kids have a right to know what you’re ‘jacking’…

Even media-savvy youth are NOT glued to techie trades like GigaOm nor following VoIP the way Stuart and mobile media trend-trackers are…most have no idea how their personal profiles are being opportunistically mined.

Let’s face it, if you’re an average child or parent, unaware of YPulse trends or mobile youth reports or Virtual World News and media/marketing lexicon, you’re pretty much hosed when it comes to knowing who’s doing what with your data and how…

Didn’t the Facebook Beacon fiasco teach companies ANYthing when youth launched an all out techno-war on their own Facebook platform angry about how they had made people’s private purchases and shopping habits public to share with “friends?”

Just wondering if any companies managed to miss that outcry of ‘foul’ or whether they’re just plunging in sans regulatory tasers to determine what’s ‘fair’ on their own?

Where are the ethics and accountability here, industry ‘colleagues?’

I’ve got the refrain from Where Have All the Flowers Gone in my brain, “When will they ever learn? When will they eeeeeeever learn?” Sigh.

Self-rein, schmain…this is opportunistic hijinks.

I say sic Jeff Chester and the Center for Digital Democracy on ‘em ALL and get some FTC behavioral advertising policies in place pronto, because this wild-west frontier of “asking forgiveness rather than permission” is reckless, rude, invasive, ubiquitous and just plain wrong! Sheesh.

Don’t miss the CDD analysis, “A Tour of Online Advertising’s Two Way Mirror” to get the gist of the powerful pervasiveness of the issue.

Here’s an excerpt:

“In their call for the FTC to address these important issues (by investigating and exposing unfair and deceptive practices, issuing the necessary injunctions to halt those practices that violate consumer privacy, and establishing policies to prevent such abuses in the future), CDD and US PIRG identified four areas of particular concern:
· User Tracking/Web Analytics

· Behavioral Targeting

· Audience Segmentation

· Information Gathering/Data Mining

“While these are complex areas that involve sophisticated (and often transparent) technologies, it’s possible to get a better sense of how online advertisers monitor, track, and target us online by visiting their websites, to get a glimpse “behind the curtain” of the new online marketing machinery.”

Wow. I’ll say.

I wouldn’t hold my breath for the FTC to ‘take the bull by the horns’ too soon either…

So far they haven’t given much more than a wrist slap to this behavior, even though they acknowledge,

“…Consumers have expressed discomfort about the privacy implications of being tracked online, as well as the specific harms that could result. In particular, ‘”Without adequate safeguards in place, consumer tracking data may fall into the wrong hands or be used for unanticipated purposes…These concerns are exacerbated when the tracking involves sensitive information about, for example, children, health, or a consumer’s finances…”

…Golly gosh. Ya think? They (the FTC) add that:

“Data security, identity theft, spam, and spyware have been top agency priorities since the mid-1990s, and the Commission has worked to address these issues through a combination of consumer and business education, law enforcement, and policy initiatives.”

Riiiiiiiiight. Well, let’s see…top priority since the mid-90s —that would be…a decade ago?

Other than a two-day FTC town hall meeting on ‘e-havioral advertising’ and a set of proposed ad principles for “self-regulation” we’ve got squat so far. Nada. Bupkiss.

No teeth in that watchdog whatsoever.

They’re gumming those rawhides like an aging, toothless junk yard dog without the chops to even peel back a menacing snarl.

Nice doggy. Pat-pat.

As the corporations tiptoe right past ineffective Fido tied to the stake and bribed with treats…

No one doubts that consumers may consider it a ‘value-add’ to have instant access to one’s specific preferences delivered in a tailored, narrowcast manner…but let’s get real…

There’s a HUGE difference between “opt-in permissions and opt-out defaults,” between consumer-driven preferences and business-driven agendas…between ‘push’ and ‘pull,’ so to speak.

Imho, “choice and access” should benefit consumers, not industry…And kids should be OUT of the line of fire altogether…not smack dab in the center of the target.

The SkypeJournal article hopefully is not prescient, pondering the plotline and twists of Batman’s fictional conundrums by asking:

“Does the potential exist for turning-on mobile phones without the owner’s consent? Turning citizens into open microphones?

With enough money, could you build the filters to match voices or listen for words/phrases in near real time?”

Hmn…And lest you think all this Dark Knight fiction is folly…look at the real world evidence he cites in the SkypeJournal piece:

Yah, I know…Gosh, Batman, don’t worry, the feds have it under control…

“The FTC will continue to monitor the marketplace closely so it can take appropriate action as circumstances warrant.”


The way I see it, the situation HAS been “warranted” for a decade, and the Joker’s still calling the shots on “action.”

Ka-pow! Biff! Boom! Zowee! Okay, truthfully, not much comical about this…it’s all very ‘Dark Knight’ to me…

Gawd, where’s a superhero when you need one?

Visual Credits: Jaxtr screenshot: Stuart Henshall’s blog, watchdog cartoon: The Matrix, Batman/Joker photo:



  1. Thanks for nice article!

  2. Another great post Amy. As you so clearly pointed out, unless a user (parent or not) is constantly investigating sites that cover these issues, they’ll never stay on top of what info they’re unknowingly giving up. The recent wholesale iPhone adoption wave has taken over many of my most sane tech heroes. Not a one of them is commenting on how these tethered devices silently report back to HQ with gobs of user data and are essentially only open to content supplied and approved by the great Apple Corp. Check out Jonathan Zittrain’s great book “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It.” ( has all the deets. (it’s free to dl.)

    If you haven’t already, you must (MUST) read Cory Doctorow’s YA novel: Little Brother ( Also free to download.

    Thanks again for the post, Amy. Keep fighting. In the words of the great Tommy Douglas: “Courage, my friends; ’tis not too late to build a better world.”


  3. Thanks for the link and kind words of encouragement as always, Liam…

    You are SO right about the iPhone zeal too…should’ve seen the mktg pros at the YPulse conference all clucking about the latest and greatest w/narry a care about the monopoly bit.

    btw: since when did Jobs get so Gates-ish anyway? The whole ‘exclusive platform’ default bit is annoying in and of itself, especially for those of us that are cross-platform on multiple gizmos…I find my machines ‘battle each other’ for dominance even when I’m not near them! (defaults, browsers, you name it…’would you like to set this as your home page’ blahdeeblah…sigh.

    No, thank you, and quit changing it on me without asking.

    Nope, ol’ Dark Knight isn’t so far off at all…;-)

  4. Oh! And for you other readers, I faltered on my own policy, which is always the CALL TO ACTION portion vs. the power-whine…To give info on ‘what you can do’—

    For the tech sites mining the data, contact the ones in question directly and express your displeasure…even if you receive a reply like Stuart did from Jaxtr support that said,

    “Sorry to read you were not happy to be included in the recent beta release of café jaxtr. But we certainly appreciate your taking the time to provide your feedback, which I’ll be sure to pass onto our product and management teams.—I also wanted to let you know I’ve taken care of removing your account as you noted on your blog. Cancelation instructions are readily found on the “support” section of our site, or by searching for the words “cancel” or “delete” there, but I’m happy to assist. If you change your mind in this regard, please feel free to contact me directly.”

    Gosh…so no button or obvious overt opt-out, one has to waste time delving deeper into “support, search for cancel or delete” etc. BLEH! BLEH! BLEH!

    As for the FTC…(and the FCC on product placement for that matter!) I know I am a bit harsh, as they ARE ALL for the first time being called to task by multiple consumer groups and needing to address this rather than skirt it…

    But if you’d like to have a direct channel to add your two cents…here ya go…a ‘call to action’ avenue for the FTC:

    “To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,500 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad.”

    Betsy Lordan
    Office of Public Affairs

    Jessica L. Rich
    Bureau of Consumer Protection

  5. So maybe I WAS a bit hard on the FTC?

    From MediaPost newsletter today:

    “Behavioral Targeting’s ‘Creepy’ Factor”

    “A few years ago, when lawmakers were focused on crafting legislation to outlaw spyware, behavioral targeting also found itself caught in the crosshairs. The politicos’ attitude: “A little collateral damage is fine if we can solve this problem.”

    So said Dave Morgan, an early pioneer in behavioral targeting. As part of the keynote address at the OMMA behavioral targeting conference this morning, he recalled how behavioral targeting almost got swept up in anti-adware/spware bills. “We brought it on ourselves,” he said. “We sold the spyware. We put it on these Web sites… We created that problem and we let it go on.”

    Some of those bills would have included legislation regulating third-party tracking cookies, which behavioral targeting companies rely on to know what Web sites people have visited. At the time, behavioral targeting was cookie-based; companies like Tacoda, Revenue Science and others used cookies to track people across a limited number of sites and then serve them ads based on their presumed buying preferences.

    Those anti-spyware bills ultimately died, possibly because the Federal Trade Commission and some state attorneys general brought enforcement actions that made new legislation unnecessary. But Washington is still looking at behavioral targeting, and this time as a problem in itself. “It’s no longer about keeping behavioral targeting from getting pulled into spyware,” Morgan said. “Now it’s behavioral marketing that they’re after.”

    Morgan blames the new ISP-based targeters — companies like Phorm and NebuAd — for the shift. Those companies don’t rely on clickstream data to track people. With access to every site that people visit, or every search query they enter, these companies are in a position to create far more detailed user profiles than older behavioral targeting companies. That’s a prospect that isn’t sitting well with advocates or Washington. “I don’t think it passes the creepy factor,” Morgan said. “This market isn’t ready for stuff that doesn’t pass the creepy factor.”

  6. And from The Chronicle of Higher Education’s newsletter today:

    “Keeping an Eye on Online Students”

    “Technology vendors are eager to sell college officials hardware and software designed to verify the identify of online students–and thereby prevent cheating. A free article in The Chronicle describes some of the technologies that colleges are trying out to make certain that the person taking an online exam is, in fact, the student enrolled in the course.

    The technologies include Web cameras that watch students taking tests and scanners that capture students’ fingerprints. A provision in a bill reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is fueling much of the interest in this issue.

    A paper released in February by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education says the provision–while not onerous to most distance-learning providers–could “drive up the cost of these important education programs.”

    And some online institutions fear that the provision would require them to have their students travel to distant locations to take proctored exams on paper.

    The result? Some states would conclude that the institutions have a “physical presence” in their states, and would subject the institutions to “a whole new set of state regulations,” says John F. Ebersole, president of Excelsior College.

    by –Andrea L. Foster”

  7. And in another “what were they thinking moment”…

    U of M collegiate students have had their SSN# exposed per Andrea Foster of Chronicle for Higher Education (again) so this just goes to show you, a slip of a data nugget can wreak havoc online AND offline…

    Common sense needs to prevail, peeps, and students deserve data protection universally…sheesh. Talk about ‘transparency’ this one goes right up there with my former homeland, where Hawaii state driver’s licenses used to use our SSN#s right smack dab on our license for ID. argh.

    July 22, 2008
    Social Security Numbers of U. of Maryland Students Exposed

    “About 24,000 students at the University of Maryland are at risk of having their identities stolen.

    On July 1, the university’s Department of Transportation Services sent all students registered for upcoming fall classes parking brochures. Affixed to the brochures were mailing labels that contained student’s Social Security numbers, although the numbers were not identified as such. The numbers were inadvertently put on the mailing labels, according to a university Web site.

    J. David Allen, director of the transportation department, apologized for the security breach in a Thursday e-mail message to registered students.

    “We are taking aggressive steps to ensure that this does not happen again,” the message read. “We strongly recommend that you take appropriate precautions to mask, black out, or destroy this document after use.”

    The message also recommends that students place a 90-day fraud alert on their consumer credit files and also consider placing a security freeze on the files. The university is offering to foot the bill for students who want a year of credit monitoring from Equifax. No student has had his or her identity stolen as a result of the incident, according to a university spokeswoman.–Andrea L. Foster”

  8. Ressie Schweinsberg says

    I think your write up was actually a strong kick off to a potential series of posts about this topic. Most people pretend to comprehend what they are preaching about when it comes to this stuff and in reality, very few people actually get it. You seem to understand it though, so I think you need to take it and run. Thank you!

  9. Dyan Primeau says

    I feel gamers are especially susceptible to viruses and spyware getting installed while they’re playing games. Most avid gamers do not block incoming packets with advanced firewall rules and may be victims of malware injections. This may be a topic for a future blog post for your site. Cheers.

  10. Really good point…you sound well versed in this area, any tips or recos for who would be a good interview source to do a deep dive on this? Or which sites might be great resources in this realm? It’s an excellent idea for a post, and I’m sure it would help many, especially since so many YOUNG gamers can foul up systems being too entrenched in the game to care at the time.

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