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Where to draw the line

Friday 15th November 2013

Being watched is always a weird feeling. Going about your day, flicking through a bunch of websites when a blatant banner ad for shoes catches your attention.

Hang on.

Weren't those the shoes I was looking at yesterday? Ah, that's right, everything I do online is tracked for advertising.

No biggie? Not a huge deal I guess, it can feel a little odd for a few seconds, but that's all, it makes the ads more relevant to me so no real harm done.

Websites track your activity be leaving little pieces of information in your browser, these are called cookies, likely because they leave a trail of crumbs.

It's general consensus that simple web tracking is not a huge threat to our privacy and that the benefits it provides to the web experience are useful. For instance, when you add something to an online shopping cart and its still there when you come back, that is a cookie at work. But while simple tracking of shopping sites is accepted by most of us, is it the tip of a big data iceberg?

Companies are collecting information on our interests, location and habits so they can use it for their own goals. With the world focusing on piracy and the control of digital data New Zealand is at the stage where it needs to make a call on how what is too far, who is watching the watchers.

We have just passed a law giving the Government access to calls, texts and emails but what about other tracking technology available to private companies not snooping for the sake of national security. How we defend our online data rights is something we need to consider sooner rather then later as technology makes more tracking possible.

Check out this post - 7 Ways You're Being Tracked in the Modern World - to see how license plates, phones, social networks and CCTV are being used to provide a pretty comprehensive view on how we live our lives.

License plate tracking has been happening in the United States for years, amassing hundreds of millions of cars on file. Police there require a judge's approval to track a car via GPS but that doesn't extend to license plate tracking.

License plate tracking is called ANPR (Automated Number Plate Recognition) in New Zealand, take a look where and how its used by the NZTA and the NZ Police. The information captured is protected under the Privacy Act of 1993 but can be used to prevent crime or protect public revenue.

This data shouldn't be finding its way into the hands of private companies but some may be surprised to know that the police might pull you over one day because a camera scanned your license plate, cross checked it with your tax records and told an officer to stop you for questioning.

Location data on our phones is collected via apps and web browsing, for an example of the extremes check out the Jay Z app released in partnership with Samsung. The app provided an early download of the new Magna Carta album but required access to your phone calls, precise GPS location and the contents of your USB storage. This is very excessive for what the app actually did and should make us ask a lot of questions about the countless other services we use on our phones and computers.

Telcos also keep records of where we have been based on the phones location. AT&T and several other US mobile carriers are now packaging their subscriber data to create powerful statistics about people to monetise your movements in the form of ad targeting and insight packages.

I may be fine with getting a targeted banner ad based on my web browsing habits, but I'm not cool when something pops up because I walked into an Apple store two days ago. That kind of tracking is getting pretty weird, but we can likely expect it to start being used in New Zealand within the next year.

Ever entered a competition on one of those Facebook apps? Chances are that company now has all the personal info you have shared with Facebook.

This cool Mozilla plugin called Lightbeam will give you a visual display showing how you’re being tracked. I'm not saying it's worth switching to Mozilla for, but it's definitely worth checking out.


Facebook's ad platform in particular is evolving quickly. Let's say I share my email with TradeMe, if I use the same email with Facebook, TradeMe can target me with ads on Facebook. They know exactly where we are and what we ‘like’, so companies are keen to start using it to get you when you are the most responsive or, shall we say, vulnerable. Like hitting you with a coupon for a Big Mac at 1am after you have previously been at the pub.

CCTV and surveillance cameras in general are well ingrained in our society, between public areas, apartment buildings and most of the places we work, Big Brother has us pretty much covered. I used Google's new "search by image" feature the other day and it's not hard to see how all these cameras could be put to use. It's like when you see the CIA automatically searching live satellite imagery in the movies, you upload a photo of something and Google uses it to search for other photos like it or information about whatever is in the image.

Businesses or governments could search live or recorded video to find out what we are up to. Imagine a background check that pulls up YouTube videos of your best dance moves at Rhythm and Vines six years ago. The rise of tech like Google Glass is only going to mean more videos of us all floating round the web.

I'm not anti technology or companies that do cool stuff using data to tailor advertising or content, but we need to agree where to draw the line. We shouldn't have to worry what we (or our kids) are doing in public for the fear that it will be searchable in the future.

So what should New Zealand do? Our Privacy Act outlines 12 key principles on how companies and agencies should handle data. In 2011 an inquiry into NZ's privacy laws found it to be out of date and recommended a bunch of changes including tighter controls. Some of these changes are rumoured to be before parliament at the moment. The report suggested giving people the chance to opt out of online tracking entirely.

Our current law also requires all web browser such as Chrome or Safari, to have an option for users to browse without being tracked and websites to provide an option that allows you to opt out of tracking when you visit a specific site, but this is often hidden away.

For those looking to take things into their own hands, there are some guides on how to avoid being tracked online.
For those looking to take things into their own hands, there are some guides on how to avoid being tracked online.


The US state of California is putting in place a law to make all websites to state specifically what data they are capturing. When you visit a site it would pop up and tell you they are tracking your location and browsing history. There are fears that this will trigger a blanket 'do not track' option for users all across the web and the implications this would have on advertising technology businesses and the other various startups that build million dollar companies on this data.

Considering our new spying law is very similar to the one in place in Britain, there is a good chance we will follow the data laws currently being implemented across Europe. The policy will give anyone the right to access any data that companies have on them and to have it removed on request. So for instance I could ask Telecom to show me what data they have on me and force them to remove anything I don't want on record.  

New Zealand may be restrained in some respects by the internet giants and how they want to play the game, I can't see Facebook and Google changing the way they work just to please us, so we may have to go along with Europe or the US on this one.

For those looking to take things into their own hands, there are some great guides on how to avoid being tracked online that cover everything from Facebook settings and encrypting your home internet connection right through to services that will remove your data from data brokers that shop it around other companies. Mashable just published a great article on opting out of tracking on some of the major sites.

This content was brought to you with funding assistance from New Zealand On Air.