Big Data is everywhere. Occupy Wall Street protesters, however, are dealing with a special challenge: Online marketers and analytics firms tracing the minutiae of their lives—including their email contacts and physical location—and possibly passing the information on to law enforcement.
According to technology researcher Tim Libert, protesters affiliated with the Occupy movement have unintentionally aided and abetted corporations in tracking them through social media and analytics plug-ins. Popular web analytics tools such as Google Analytics and Sitemeter, it also turns out, repackage website information for corporate clients. These corporate clients can then pass on information to law enforcement agencies willing to purchase the data.
Mobile users of several popular services, whose GPS locations are much more likely to be tracked by overzealous local law enforcement, are especially vulnerable, Libert said in an email to Fast Company.“I'm quite certain with the right set of database queries, Google engineers could identify specific account holders (through Google Maps) who were present at Zuccotti Park, for example. Likewise, it would be fairly trivial to compile a list of people who spent more than six hours at a time at any given Occupy encampment by looking at mobile phone records. That would give you a fairly good list of all Occupiers worldwide, who you could then place on any manner of watch lists.”
Libert found that sites affiliated with the Occupy movement often included Facebook “Like” buttons or analytics services, which lead to user information being repackaged for marketers and corporations. Using the browser plug-in Ghostery, which reveals tracker bugs, Libert discovered that 99 out of 100 Occupy sites he visited employed some sort of cookie or third-party embedded content. Facebook and Twitter buttons showed up on 47% of the Occupy sites—but these buttons are also used by those social media giants to gather detailed information on user likes and habits. Every time an Occupier clicks a “Like” button for their local Occupy movement or information clearinghouse, they also potentially add information to a marketing dossier which could be acquired by probing law enforcement. (Note: Fast Company uses over 10 services tracked by Ghostery, including DoubleClick, Google Analytics, and Red Aril.)
Twitter, Facebook, Google Analytics, Google Calendar, Google +1, and WordPress Stats were responsible for the bulk of the tracking bugs on Occupy sites. Google, WordPress, and other vendors don't offer their invaluable (and free) web services altruistically—the price paid by the general public is detailed analysis of their personal habits. And Libert claims that it's just a short leap from there for Google, for example, to extrapolate the real name, address, and personal interests of an individual Occupy sympathizer by cross-comparing a user's IP address across Gmail, Google Maps, Google Calendar, and Google Search.
The chart below, provided by Libert, gives a basic idea of the breakdown of trackers found on Occupy sites; an interactive version is available here.
While it is a given that cookies and the marketing and analytics firms behind them record a staggering amount of our online lives—whether we're activists or not—it's a special concern for the Occupy movement. Among the privacy activist community, it has long been an open secret that law enforcement authorities routinely purchase aggregate social media marketing data to circumvent privacy laws. At the 2011 World Media Summit in New York, Jay Stanley and Susan Herman of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) disclosed that the FBI voraciously purchases marketing information on U.S. citizens from data aggregation firms. Local law enforcement agencies also routinely track citizens' locations via GPS, often without a warrant.
The larger issue here is the ubiquitous marketing-driven soft surveillance found on the web and in the smartphone app world. Through an unconscious process of technological innovation and demand for free web services, an ever-present industry of web surveillance has been created to pay the bills for the Internet. As law enforcement agencies discover how consumer data mining and GPS phone tracking are a legal gray area, this will become a concern for all of us—not just Occupy Wall Street protesters.
[Chart: Courtesy Tim Libert; image: Flickr user J. Paul Zoccali]