Published October 30, 2013
Scarier than the NSA and spookier than the CIA, the quants are out to get you!
Out to quantify you, to be precise, which means following your every move online, with your smartphone, in your car, in the supermarket. For quants, the only things that exist are the things that can be quantified or counted. Quants are mindless, their programs run like viruses, and they can't be stopped with a stake through the heart or a silver bullet.
Should you be worried, and if so, is there anything you can do about them?
Quants are credited with everything from winning the last presidential election to successful multi-million product launches. Some of these Web neophytes like Drawbridge, Flurry, and SessionM claim they can track you on a mobile phone and across multiple devices from tablets to work computers without ever using a "cookie" or standard tracking method. The idea is to get fine-grained details on who you are and deliver personalized ads, search engine results, maps, etc. Run all you like, but you can't hide.
Of course, these are claims often made by startups looking for investment money, so they should be treated with some skepticism. Nevertheless, quants continue to labor on their algorithms and discover new tricks, and like relentless zombies, they're going to get you eventually.
Although these programs may not react to garlic, they do not like sunlight. So the best defense is transparency, exposing the programs and third parties tracking you to see what's really happening. This past week the folks at Mozilla who are behind the open-source Firefox browser took an important step in that direction by releasing a browser add-on called Lightbeam.
Previously known as Collusion, it works with Firefox and reveals what third-party trackers and programs are sticking to you (or attempting to do you so) as you visit various sites. Go to an online autoparts store, for example, and Lightbeam uncovers more than 10 third parties that are collecting data on you (now they know what a broken-down car I have). After visiting just 17 sites, Lightbeam revealed that I had actually been in touch with 131 third-party sites, providing them with information on my surfing habits--whether I wanted to or not.
Some people see this as the commercial equivalent of the NSA but unfettered by regulation, laws or any oversight whatsoever. For those of us who feel this way, Lightbeam will allow you to block individual sites. After gazing at the frightening graphical spider web Lightbeam creates, simply go to the "list" view and check off the third-party sites you don't trust.
For its part, Mozilla hopes to learn more from the data voluntarily contributed by Lightbeam users about these third-party sites. How prevalent are they? What kind of data do they appear to be collecting? What doesn't work when a third-party program is blocked?
If you want a more lethal, final way of blocking all the known tracking and marketing firms, there's Ghostery. It's a free add-on that works with all the major browsers. Tap on an icon at the top of your browser and Ghostery will give you a chilling list of all the sites tracking you on the page you're visiting. You can block all of them, or select those you find particularly scary.
One problem with blocking every site or program that follows you around the Web is that you can inadvertently disable some useful services. For example, many Web site videos won't work with Ghostery in full vampire-killing mode. And social sharing widgets are usually disabled. The program will allow you pause blocking when you run into trouble.
How much you should worry about all this commercial cyber spying isn't clear yet. Many of these companies are overhyping what they can do and the level of precision they can achieve. Statistical modeling and algorithms do not a make for very accurate digital eavesdropping tools (yet).
"We're building a guesswork economy," explains Alex Fowler, Mozilla's privacy officer. He notes that a lot of the best and brightest programmers are going into the adtech and digital marketing business. What we need, though, is a better way of engaging consumers and citizens directly to find out what we really want -- and where to draw the lines on privacy and security.
Until that happens, this Halloween I'm going to forget about zombies and Miley Cyrus. I'm going as a quant.