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The Mind Gangsters

Why We Should, and How We Can, Limit Surveillance of Digital Reading Habits

By Thomas Nosewicz

It is not alarmist to say that the Internet is the first truly panoptic system of the mind. Dumbfoundingly dense databanks can—and do—gorge themselves on one’s every move across a webpage. Web tools monitor every specific article a visitor reads, how she was referred to that article, and how long she spent reading it. These tools allow website owners to compile a comprehensive set of statistics about visitors to their websites, including how often they visit, their domains and countries of origin, what pages they view the most, and the operating system and web browser they use to access the website. This surveillance is omnipresent, all-knowing, and perfectly concealed.

Some sites go even further and require completion of a registration process that involves relinquishing a zip code, email address, and full name. Compared to the non-wired world, the increase in monitoring capability in these circumstances is exponential. The extent of this information gathering is not only annoying, but also increasingly relevant as more and more government data mining programs, some of which rely on information gathered by private companies, are revealed to the public.

This Note is about how this information should be treated. Part I describes how these systems function to track browsers’ interactions with websites. Part II examines problems with these systems, including the vulnerabilities they create for user privacy. Part III investigates techniques available to bypass compulsory registration. Part IV suggests how companies should address this issue, and Part V proposes a federal law, modeled on the Video Privacy Protection Act, to regulate the gathering and sharing of user information.

Posted in Notes.

April 9, 2009 Cite: 2009 Stan. Tech. L. Rev. N1