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Casting Light on the Internet's Shadows (and Shadowing)

By Princeton ­niversity

November 7, 2014

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In an interview, Princeton University professor Arvind Narayanan and the Center for Information Technology Policy's (CITP) Solon Barocas discuss the ethical and social ramifications of online tracking.

Barocas says his focus at CITP is applying his expertise to the ethics of data mining on the Web, which feeds into the Web Transparency and Accountability Project (WebTAP) Narayanan founded to address complex issues related to online privacy. Narayanan says WebTAP's operating precept is that greater transparency is always better in the long term, and he notes "even if only a fraction of consumers makes choices based on privacy, it can exert a significant pressure on companies to change their practices." He cites a study finding the practice of cookie syncing, which enables different tracking firms to match Web user identities with each other and share user-related data beyond the reach of WebTap transparency tools, is rampant. Barocas warns differential treatment of users stemming from data use can harm regular Web users; for example, contextual ads for arrest records returned by Google searches for black-sounding names.

Narayanan notes Web transparency research has reached a critical point with the integration of online and offline tracking, and there must be more transparency about targeting to deal with its potential for further profiling and manipulation.

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