Thursday, January 19, 2012

Don’t look now, but someone’s watching

I saw that one of Bruce Willis’ films was going to be airing on the tube the other night. I couldn’t recall the plot, so being a high-tech sort of guy I googled the flick and was rewarded immediately with several sites that offered details – plot summaries, reviews, facts and gossip about the cast and crew.

I mention all this as preamble, a little context to give weight to my gentle reminder that anything – and I mean absolutely everything – you do on the web is being watched. So it was that shortly after my little research project on Willis and Die Hard: With a Vengeance was complete, I skittered over to Facebook.

The "free trial" offer above was waiting for me along the right hand rail. Big Brother’s digital cousin apparently had been watching when I clicked onto IMDb; stored the info and fed it through a series of algorithms that instantaneously found me on the web.

It’s not as if I didn’t already know that whatever happens on the web is pretty much available to anyone with decent computer skills or, more likely, any company with enough cash to hire tech geeks to do its snooping. It’s the speed, sophistication and pervasive nature of the eavesdropping that’s grabbed my attention.

If I do a little window shopping on Amazon, visit Orbitz, or try out a pair of shoes at, it doesn’t surprise me at all that for the next few hours – days, weeks – that I’ll be hit with a series of ads pushing stuff on Amazon, Orbitz and Zappos. The Netflix offer, however, caught me by surprise.

I didn’t go to the Netflix site; it came to me, casually winking and offering up a film that it thought I was interested in watching. Of course the folks at Netflix knew I wanted to watch the film; they had been watching me!

Can you imagine the number of hits – hundreds, thousands, millions – various movie sites get in a day; the give and take between these sites and Netflix – all, btw, at the speed of light!

Now factor all that by 10 – a hundred, thousand, kajillion – and you start to have a sense of all the snooping about on various sites, mostly attempting to sell goods and services. The really scary stuff is the snooping that’s stealing – social security numbers, bank accounts, credit card numbers.

I’m thinking that in our collective effort to jump into the future, we’ve been hurled back into the past. The World Wide Web – is that a phrase that’s used anymore? – is looking pretty much like the Wild, Wild West and the problem is there’s only one sheriff to corral a million grizzled cowpokes sporting black hats --and digital guns!

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