Tracking: How that trail of cookie crumbs can leave behind more than you thought

You may or may not have heard of cookies, and before we go any farther lets get everyone on the same page, we are talking computer cookies.

Cookies are teeny files that are deposited on your hard drive while you surf the Internet. A cookie definition is a text only string that gets entered into the memory of your browser. A cookie is sometimes referred to as an HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie. However, all cookies aren’t the same, in general they seem to be pretty harmless. They tend to expire quickly and actually make websites easier to use.

For example, you know those logins that remember you as you start typing in your information – that’s the cookies. Maybe creepy, but most just pass it off for the convenience factor.

That doesn’t seem too bad, a couple of sites you frequent often remembering your information, right? No, it gets personal and creepy when you throw in the word tracking.

Tracking has been defined by the Center for Democracy and Technology as “the collection and correlation of data about the Internet activities of a particular user, computer or device over time and across non-commonly branded Web sites, for any purpose other than fraud prevention or compliance with law enforcement requests.”

Long term tracking cookies, aren’t your run of the mill cookies. These cookies can actually collect a lot of information about what web sites you visit, and what you look at and do on those web pages also.

Your web browsing habits can be tracked and profiled, which can ultimately allow companies to make predictions on your “offline” purchasing habits.

So what is the problem with these “long term tracking cookies”? Companies such as advertisers or web analytic groups, may know more about you than you think they should. Not only do they have information about you, they can sell this information too.

However, there is good news: you can easily delete your cookie from your browser as often as you like. But deleting your cookie file entirely will make you start from scratch with every website you visit – there goes your convenience factor.

To protect yourself you can also opt-out of having your information used by third-party ad servers.  This site also allows you to see what and how many third parties companies are tracking you, check it out by visiting: http://www.networkadvertising.org/managing/opt_out.asp or more recently request to be on the “Do Not Track” list. Do Not Track allows users to hide their browsing activity from advertisers.

And don’t think you are not interesting enough to be tracked, if you are on Facebook then this might be of interest to you. Facebook is once again being sued for tracking their users even after they have signed off of Facebook. This isn’t the first time Facebook has been accused of using cookies to track users after they have logged out of their account. Facebook has said they don’t track users across the Web and its cookies are used to personalize content. And for the tracking cookies, after you log out, it’s for your safety and protection. I’m not so sure about that….

With that being said, ourselves as the user need to be aware of how, where, and why our information is being used. It is definitely something to think about, whether your browsing activity is allowing companies and the government to manipulate us, the consumers, too much?  Lucky for us their are multiple privacy and advocate groups and that are out there trying to protect our privacy and push companies to be more transparent about the data they collect.


The ACLU: One of Facebook’s Best Frienemies

In the wake of Instant Personalization, Timeline, and Open Graph, it’s not a stretch to say that Facebook has a history of pushing the privacy boundaries… at least until someone pushes back.

In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission pushed back in its settlement, requiring Facebook to “respect the privacy wishes of its users and subjects [Facebook] to regular privacy audits for the next 20 years.” The New York Times commented that the FTC’s involvement essentially introduced “friction” to Facebook’s frictionless sharing, but in no way was it the end to Facebook’s skirmishes with privacy. In fact, if Facebook only had its eye on resistance from government agencies, it might make the mistake of overlooking a powerful opponent in the American Civil Liberties Union.

According to their website, the ACLU is an organization that works within the court system to preserve the constitutional “individual rights and liberties” guaranteed to every American citizen. With Facebook and privacy continuing to be at odds, it’s an easy fit for the ACLU, and as a result, the organization has consistently found itself representing complainants in many Facebook privacy cases.

Even back in 2009, the ACLU was very concerned about the information that users put on Facebook. The ACLU called Facebook’s restrictions on data collection by application developers “simply inadequate.” Their concern was that application developers could create something as innocuous as a Facebook Quiz and then use that to get access to a user’s information which could then be packaged, sold, or even turned over to the authorities.

While this concern is present today, what is more pressing to the ACLU is the increasing instances of authoritative organizations pressuring individuals to turn over their Facebook account information and passwords.

In 2010, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services asked a former employee for his Facebook account information and password after the employee sought to reestablish his employment. Supposedly, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services was looking for any “gang affiliations” the former employee might have, but the ACLU called such actions “appalling.”

There has also recently been a case where a student was forced to give school officials her Facebook password, because she was accused of having an inappropriate conversation with another student on Facebook. The ACLU is currently representing the student in a lawsuit against the school.

Facebook’s response to this new trend has been swift. It is now a violation of Facebook’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities to share or solicit a Facebook password. The ACLU now has a partner in its lobby for congress to pass legislation ensuring protection of passwords from employers, schools, government, law enforcement, and any other organization in a position to request such information.

So, in this instance, Facebook and ACLU find themselves strange bedfellows, because if there’s something Facebook can’t stand it’s someone other than Facebook violating its users’ privacy.


How News Got Social

In 2011, The New York Times‘ circulation reached 1.2 million people.

The Wall Street Journal’s circulation reached 2.11 million people.

Facebook’s circulation reached 500 million people.

It’s not a leap to say that news organizations would love to harness the power of Facebook, unfortunately few have found an effective means to do so. However, for those looking to partner with the social media giant, the success of the Washington Post Social Reader is one that cannot be ignored.

Launched in 2011, the Washington Post Social Reader Facebook application is currently used by 11 million people. It instantly shares articles you read with your Facebook friends, and shares articles your Facebook friends read with you, creating a “socially powered newswire of intriguing articles.”  It also recommends other articles based on what articles a user has previously read, allowing for a better understanding of a “user’s preferences with repeat usage.”

Most importantly however, is the fact the Social Reader allows users to look at full articles without leaving their Facebook page. Users also don’t have to pay for the articles they view.

The Washington Post Social Reader has no advertisements. For many stories, it doesn’t even direct the user to content from its own site but instead uses content from partner sites like Mashable, the Associated Press, and Global Post. The average individual may question what the Washington Post may even get out of an application like Social Reader, but the answer is data. When users get the Social Reader application, it asks for permissions, but more importantly specific permissions.

Like any good app, it doesn’t ask for information the creating organization doesn’t need. For example, since the Washington Post is an organization built on its readership, it has no need for information dealing with a user’s Facebook pictures or status updates. Asking for only specific information, instead of access to everything, shortens the number of permissions, which may make users feel more at ease with the app they are allowing on their Facebook page.

Since the Social Reader shares articles a user reads with their Facebook friends, privacy settings are included to where users can decide what groups of their friends are allowed to see the articles a user reads. This impacts the reach of the Social Reader, because not only can it be limited to certain groups of friends, but if a friend wants to read an article that a user’s Social Reader shares with them, they must also allow the Social Reader app.

It is also important to note that by using the Washington Post Social Reader, users are automatically upgraded to Facebook Timeline, the new version of a Facebook profile, which allows users to share more information about themselves over the course of their life.


There’s Nothing Casual About Smartphone Gaming Addiction

No, this isn’t a wildlife print by John James Audubon. It’s just a bird that I drew this morning on my smartphone.

If you guys haven’t downloaded Draw Something yet, get on it. First of all, this brilliantly simple turn-based pictionary game will provide you with hours and hours of fun (outside of class, of course). Secondly, there are a number of elements contributing to this game’s success worth noting. And third, I want some more people to play with. (As you can see by my screenshot, I am playing with a random user because my 4 friends who play are taking too long in between turns.)

Draw Something was downloaded over a million times in the first 10 days it was released. As of now, the game is seeing 10 million new drawings every 24 hours. That is a lot of action.

This explosion of growth was made possible because Draw Something was released as a truly cross-platform app. Players can connect with friends via Facebook or Twitter, as well as invite people to play by email. Android and iOS phone/tablet users can play against one another. Also, Instagram has proven to be a surprise marketing engine because Draw users like to post screenshots of their pictures. (It is also worth noting that you are not required to connect with a social network to use the app, if agreeing to the Facebook permissions creeps you out) Because the game made a simultaneous splash on both major mobile platforms with options to connect with the two largest social networks, there was never any friction in the word-of-mouth machine. Some applications lose momentum when they roll out for the iphone and Android users must sit on their hands for another couple months while their version is in development, or vice versa.

The developers, OMGPOP, were smart to incorporate a variety of ways to monetize this app. The free version cashes in on banner advertising. Presumably these ads will have a much higher click-through-rate because they will leverage information collected from the user’s social network. Players can also buy virtual goods such as new colors, effects, and bombs for simplifying turns. This ability to collect additional revenue should allow the game to stay profitable longer by adding value for hardcore gamers without turning off more causal users. Interestingly, CEO Dan Porter reports that the largest source of revenue is upgrading to the $0.99 version of the game. The premium version is ad-free, with additional words, and a few extra gold coins to get you started. Overall, it is not all that different from Draw Free. In the end, it seems that the game is so addicting that users don’t think twice about shelling out the for the dollar upgrade. Right now, Draw Something is seeing 5-digit daily revenue.

Draw Something’s success is not unique. A post this week on the Facebook Developer’s blog highlights the success of casual arcade-style gaming. This is one of the oldest app categories on Facebook and continues to be a leader in growth. These games are especially beneficial to Facebook because of their high engagement factor. Users keep logging on to play, boosting page-views and subsequently increasing opportunities for users to see new advertising. In an effort to encourage developers to build upon these games’ success, Facebook points out a few strategies for success:

  • Bring friends into the game by promoting healthy competition
  • Allow people to brag about their accomplishments or highscores by posting leaderboards to timelines
  • Schedule weekly tournaments, giving users a specific reason to keep coming back
  • Promote collaborative competition and gifting by using frictionless requests

Good game mechanics are proving to be an essential quality for an app’s success, and Facebook is continually doing everything it can to create opportunities for developers to drive discovery and re-engament. Digging a little deeper into your favorite time-waster may reveal some great ideas for how companies can use applications to connect and stay connected with their most valuable constituents.


Let’s Get A Few Things Straight

All this talk about Facebook, Apps, Open Graph, and Timeline, has my head spinning. Let’s pause for a moment to get some much-needed clarification.

Earlier this year Facebook debuted about 60 Timeline apps. Today, there are 84 timeline apps available. These apps are broken down into 9 categories: Entertainment (18), Fitness (2), Food (5), Giving (3), Music (12), News (17), Shopping and Fashion (12), Travel (5), and Other (10).

What is the difference between a Timeline app and a regular Facebook app? 

Well, simply put, Timeline apps publish Actions to your profile. Timeline apps are “meant for the activities you want to share with friends.” Other applications may be considered social, but they do not publish information about you to your profile. Both Timeline apps and regular apps on Facebook can use Open Graph.

Since Facebook is making a permanent transition to Timeline, will that make all apps Timeline apps?

Yes, no, and maybe. Not every app will post Actions to your Timeline. But, Facebook does want apps to take a more prominent role in your profile. Apps were originally used to access content. The next generation of Facebook apps are meant to reflect what you do in the real world: what you eat, buy, exercise, cook, listen to, etc. Basically, Facebook wants your Timeline to be a convergence of your “real” and “digital” lives.

What are the advantages for a company to use a Timeline app?

Facebook is already publishing success stories about Timeline apps. Content discovery, increased website traffic, time spent on site, new users, and overall “engagement” are areas where companies have seen benefits. 50% of eCommerce site visitors are loged into Facebook so there is a lot of potential for companies who want to increase online sales.

Zukerberg’s “frictionless sharing” business model means “permissionless sharing.” Since users will have to opt-out rather than opt-in, markets, and your friends, will now have access to vast amounts of data they would not have had before.

What’s up with the ticker on the right-hand-side of home page?

 

When you use games and apps, the ticker on the right-hand column shows your friends’ app activity in real time. The ticker may include Sponsored Stories that may or may not be about games.

 

 


Oh These Crazy Kids and Their Apps!

I’m not entirely sure what we’re supposed to be writing about, so I’m just going to say a few words about an enlightening CNN article about apps I just read.

This particular article reported on the FTC’s investigation of app developers using data mining in children’s apps. While the investigation itself was inconclusive about the link between user information given in an app and the ads the app generated, the article painted a shady portrait of how data mining violates a child’s privacy.

Now maybe my creep factor is long since gone, but I feel like it is this type of exposure that produces the negative stigma we talked about in class a couple of weeks ago. Sure, I think that it sounds bad think about an app “gathering data to push targeted ads to your 6-year-old,” but let’s step outside of the hysteria box here.

What happens every time a kid sits down to watch his favorite Saturday morning cartoon? It isn’t ads about car insurance he’s seeing, it’s ads about toys. If it’s Transformers he’s watching, chances are he’ll see ads about action figures, toy trucks, and Nerf footballs. That’s an example of advertisers pushing targeted ads, but you don’t see parents in an uproar about it.

Now to be fair, I will say that perhaps everyone’s a little creeped out, because someone is actually selling a child’s information as opposed to simply pushing a product. The permissions screen alone can be a little eyebrow-raising.

According to the article, permission screens for a phone app or a tablet app are a little different than the permissions we’ve already discussed for Facebook apps. For example, a phone app may ask for “your phone’s contact list or location data,” but keep in mind that since it’s most likely not the child’s phone, the information the app is getting is the parent’s and not the child’s.

The FTC is also concerned about the fact the these kids’ apps can be linked to social media sites like Facebook, which children should not have an account on until they 13. Some of these apps can also facilitate financial transactions, like giving links to additional games and levels, without leaving the app itself. This causes concern that children can make purchases without parents, because credit card information may already be stored in the phone or tablet.

While I see these points as somewhat valid, I still believe that this type of advertising behavior isn’t that different from what’s already been done. How long have grocery stores kept the sugary cereal been at the eye level of a child, who can throw in box into a grocery cart without their parents knowing? What about television remotes? Kids could click a button that purchases a movie they want to see, and they don’t need a parent  to approve that purchase. It’s up to the parents to keep the remote out of the hands of children that don’t know how to use it. Phones and tablets should be used the same way. It you don’t want to supervise your child’s use of technology, you should not give them access to it.

This may be a strong and harsh stance, especially considering I have no children, but the government can only do so much regulating. The rest is a gray area. According to the FTC, app stores may require developers to tell users what information they will be using, but the app store apparently does little to enforce this. It’s a similar problem to Facebook and its apps, but the difference here is that the app developers themselves can be punished.Here’s the example from the CNN article:

In September 2011, the FTC settled its first legal action against a mobile app developer in enforcement of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. According to the consent decree, the developer (W3 Innovations, which also has done business under the name “Broken Thumbs Apps”) was ordered to start publishing information about the kinds of data collected via their apps and how that data is shared, to get parental consent before collecting any new data, and to delete all the data they had collected so far — plus pay a $50,000 fine.

To me, what’s interesting is the fact that the developer didn’t get penalized under a general technology law, but a law that was specifically for children. Perhaps that’s the only legal restraint in place for app developers today, and if that’s not enough to alert your creep factor, nothing will.


Health Apps on Facebook

As technology continues to improve and more digital applications are being created – the healthcare industry doesn’t want to be left in the dust. Since mobile health apps generated a revenue of 718 million last year , there’s very good reason to be very dust free.  Development of health and medical applications are opening new and innovative ways for technology to improve health and healthcare (or at least they hope so). There have been several studies about the actual effectiveness of these applications but I wanted to focus on what is already being offered out there on Facebook.

Most of the apps focus on three health categories: fitness, nutrition, and mind/body. Fitness apps allow you to keep track of your work out plans, create your own workouts and share your progress with your friends through Facebook.  Of course you only share the good stuff, right: whoops, forgot to post the bag of pizza-flavored cornnuts I just inhaled! The nutrition apps help keep track of nutrition goals – such as calorie counter, nutritional information, and recipes. The mind and body apps are created to help with emotional and mental health – with apps like “mind games” designed to keep your brain active.  And then further from the standard are more alternative choices, like zen/buddha apps that provide tips for mediation and inspiration.  There are also several apps that focus on relationships- these apps are suppose to help you develop better relationships with your friends, family, and loved ones.

I think they are off to a good start, trying to see what sticks and what stinks, but for now these apps are only applicable to people motivated to improve or change their health behaviors/habits, are actively engaging with the applications, or just straight technology-lovers. It takes a lot of time and effort to remember to log-in and enter the last thing you ate in your calorie count app (cornnuts).

I did a quick search of “health” apps on my Facebook – I didn’t find any apps that would be useful to myself or even seemed legit to health in general.

When I was more specific in my search terms, such as “fitness” and “nutrition”, I still was not able to find legitimate apps that I would feel comfortable giving consent to my information. Think back to the quiz apps: aka “what disney princess you are” – probably just an app taking your information for other people to use.  Don’t know about that?  Well it’s a whole ‘nother story.

I appreciate that there is a wealth of health information within our finger tips, but I know there is still work to be done beyond these superficial apps. Preventive care is very important in having a healthy life – and I think so far they are doing a good job of promoting that with exercise, nutrition and mental health. However, I think that as technology continues to excel, more apps can be created to help people with existing medical conditions, whether it’s keeping track of their prescriptions, or managing their diabetes.