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©2013 The Media Desk


"But what if I don't 'like' it?"
      "Tough luck chum"

[NOTE: from 'jump' as it were, due to the nature of the article, and the fact that overdressed over the top lawyers for the various outfits have no sense of humor that they are aware of, Names and URLs of the "social sites" being discussed have been pixilated. Or something like that.
      Also note: as is the nature of the beast- the technologies outlined in this article are probably already obsolete and have been replaced by newer, even more covert, and more efficient ones. ]

Welcome to the world of Desk "crossover" articles.
      No, we're not doing a science fiction story where a famous starship is visited by a madman in a time traveling phone shelter to join together to defeat an invasion of vampire zombies through the space gate. No.
      This non-fiction article began as a something of a Mystery Series article from the Tech Side of things, and went from there to include things that do sound like our zombie starship story after all (like having your TV send messages to your phone without your knowledge or permission).Indeed.

      Some aspects of what is going on Online beggar belief. Some appear to be nonsense dreamed up by a half crippled half drunken ex-sportswriter. And a couple may not seem so bad, and even, perchance, a good idea, until you start connecting the dots, which, we shall do.
      Along the way we'll find out what new flavors of tracking cookies are around, and who actually cares whether or not you 'like' something on a FaceSpace page.

And since we mentioned them...


      At one time, the mid nineteen nineties to be exact, a 'cookie' was a small text file placed on your local computer's hard drive which told a particular website that you had been there before, and when. This information could be relayed to the webmaster who might have reason to be interested in how many 'first time' visitors had been to the site as opposed to 'returning' ones for purposes of their 'unique' visitor count so they knew what to charge for things like banner ads on the site. That, and perhaps it kept track of your log in information so you didn't have to type your name and password every ten minutes, and that was pretty much all they did.
      The files were small, usually only a tiny text file with a couple of lines of code and a date in it, and if you hit the 'clear cookies' button on your browser or cleanup program, they went away, or if you just let it go, they would expire and 'deactivate'. And then, of course, you'd have to type your user ID again.

      How things have changed.

"Please note, that during the removal of the cookie using Exterminate It!, the cookie is only temporarily removed and it will be automatically recreated when you visit the website again, or when you visit any other website that uses any of the components." (link below)

      Remember that line where we said that a cookie was a small text file? Well, that was then. And, in a few cases, it still is. There will be a line of code on the page that simply says "set-cookie: name... value..." etc. And when it does so, the file could be one of those little text files that are almost quaint now.
      It is not unusual now for a single web page to have five or more cookies on it. During this research the Desk found a 'travel club' site that had seven (really eleven, but five were one, we'll explain that later) different cookies on it, several of which were third party files placed by advertisers. And only one of those had an expiration date on it when viewed in the 'cookie file' on its PC. On a "space" site that is supposed to be about science, it lost count of which of the 13 scripts on one page were cookies and which were 'content', and unless you allowed them all, and the ones they activated besides, the page didn't load correctly. (we won't even mention "" and their twenty)

      But there are new cookies in the jar. And some are no longer 'small text files' but background programs in and of themselves that are actively running behind the scenes whenever the computer is online. Or, in some cases, just "on". And they only answer to their masters at offices of whoever put them there, never expire, and, apparently, are immune to normal 'cookie removal' operations. And while they may still be called 'cookies' to make them seem innocuous, they may not be, as we'll see in a few minutes.
      As to what information these autonomous programs skim when you are online depends on their mission. Some only track you when you are on their host's website, keeping tabs on how long you are there, what you do, did you buy something, and so on. Others track your movements across the web as a whole, and then feed that information back to their owners either when you happen by their site again, or, in some cases, it is transmitted on a regular basis as long as the computer is active.
      Now as to whether the advertising company 'owns' the program on your computer, some at least they say they do, there are still lawsuits over that working their way through various courts as to whether your use of a website implicitly gives the site permission to install whatever they want to on your computer without telling you about it. Even if the site has an announcement that comes up that says they 'use cookies' and the website won't work correctly without you allowing them. It is a legal gray area that proves once again that the technology is light years ahead of the law, and will probably stay there.

      And we haven't even talked about critters such as the "web beacons" and their kin from 'doubleclick' (a G-word company) yet. Those come up later. Yes they do.

      As to that one scripted cookie that was in five pieces, it comes from the evil "G-word" empire and is part of their master plan to know everything that everybody does everywhere on the web. And, no longer content to use a .txt file, these are, like so many others, script files that expire everywhere from almost instantly to up to two years after it is placed on your machine. Link below to the "G" site and an independent cookie group that that will explain it all.
      The "G" company simply set out to make itself indispensible to business websites. And they've done a good job of it. They've pretty much got that side of the road, or rather, the highway covered. Now, we'll cross ....

The Information Superhighway

      Back when the world was young, people saw the 'web' as a library where one could come across a quote such as:

"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority,
but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane."

      ... and wonder who said it. And go and do a search and find out it was a Roman Emperor by the name of Marcus Aurelius, who was a Stoic philosopher who lived from 121 to 180 and wrote a book called Meditations as he served for about twenty years as the 'Last of the Five Good Emperors' and who also said: "Each day provides its own gifts." (A link to his work is below.)

      And so it was.

      But it was also a tool for making money.
      And that's where the name of the highway comes in.

      Yes, you could go to a TV Network site and buy a video biography of the Emperor. But the very fact that you were interested in him could be useful to other parties as well.
      And with the right tracking cookies, all of the sudden you could see ads for everything from Italian vacation tours to videos about Napoleon when you went to check your email.
      No, it is not coincidence that if you do a web search for fishing charters on Lake Michigan you are suddenly seeing ads for bait shops in Key West that you never saw before. And if you do your search through something that you've signed in to, such as "Yahza"'s portal, you may also be happily surprised that your mailbox now contains coupons to some sports outfitters with fishing hats on sale.

      So now when you, fresh from your research on the Emperor and with the thoughts of a nice fishing trip on your mind you go to the TV schedule page what do you see highlighted in blinking lights?
      A show about how a guy dressed in a toga went deep sea fishing in Hawaii.

      And that is exactly what the 'small text files' are for.

      To those that know such things, this is called 'enriching' your web experience with 'content delivery'. Items that may be of interest to an individual web user can be brought to their attention. Otherwise, they might miss the show they might like.
      Of course, the user that watches the fishing show might also then log onto MyLinkedFaceGTwitSpaceBookPlusIn and notice ads for the show, and the cruise, and the trip to Rome all over their home page and wonder how such a thing happened. But they also might click 'follow' or 'like' or 'add to my friends' or whatever as well.
      And thereby signing up for even more of the same.

      Because, who knows, if you like one Roman Emperor you may just love our upcoming special about the great Tzars, and a trip to see the Forbidden City, or buy a book about a camera safari up the Zambezi river.
      And we want to tell all of your friends on the social sites about it too!

Socially Speaking

      And so we've come around to Social Sites and what all of this means to them.
      Make no mistake, in the vast majority of cases, they are money making enterprises. If not directly then indirectly, such as a 'user group' for a product or service. These things are businesses, they have sales directors and bookkeepers as well as programmers. If they do not charge users a fee for access, they are making money in other ways, chiefly by advertising, but also possibly by selling demographic information about users, if not their email and possibly even their home addresses.
      Such as indicated by the exchange between the Desk and a group below.

"Sirs: Do you 'share' member information with outside entities like "National Magazine Exchange?
Thank you

"Thank you for your email. We do buy and sell mailing lists....
Thank you for being a Member,
Member Services
North American Fishing Club"

      The "fishing club" is under the umbrella of groups run by the North American Membership Group owned by the private Pilot Group. There you'll find such groups that focus on crafts, or golf, and Motorcycles and Baseball.
      And the larger organization makes no bones about it:

"...Our web server automatically collects click-stream information such as the address (or "URL") of the website that you came from before visiting our site, which pages you visit on our site, which browser you used to view our site and any search terms you have entered on our site.

NAMG may use web beacons alone or in conjunction with Cookies to compile information about your usage of the Websites and interaction with e-mails from NAMG. Web beacons are clear electronic images that can recognize certain types of information on your computer, such as Cookies, when you viewed a particular Website tied to the web beacon, and a description of a Website tied to the web beacon. For example, NAMG may place web beacons in e-mails that notify NAMG when you click on a link in the e-mail that directs you to one of the Websites. NAMG may use web beacons to operate and improve the Websites and e-mail communications. NAMG may use information from web beacons in combination with information you provide to NAMG to provide you with information about NAMG and its products and services.

Hereinafter the data collected under this CLICK STREAM INFORMATION; IP ADDRESS AND SYSTEM INFORMATION; COOKIES AND BEACONS section of this Privacy Policy shall be known collectively as "Website Navigational Information."...."

      Nice, eh?

      In interest of full disclosure, the Desk was a member of said club at the time of this writing, and had been for... about a month, and will be for... perhaps another month. Oh, well.

      It is a safe bet that the 'group' makes at least as much money from selling members interests and use, and the mailing list, as they do from dues.

      Ah, yes, an objection...

"But their collecting information isn't hurting anything...."

      Hang onto that thought while we go on a...

      One of the oldest hands at making money online is IAC (also known as InterActive Corp). While there are a few 'real world' products and services on their list, they are primarily an information business.

"IAC's businesses engage consumers around the world... from search and entertainment to dating and home repair."
      In 2007 the Desk did an article about how IAC, under one of its other names, was giving away a game. Yes, it was a 'free' game. In this case, the term "free" had an interesting twist to it. And that twist could become very expensive very quickly as explained in the article: (hotlink below)
end tangent

      That was on the high side of six years ago, the game, "zwinky" is old news. But the information gleaned from its users, and the 'ask' toolbar installed with it, is still going strong.

"but I've never played that game or used the 'ask' search! they're still not hurting anybody."

      Have you ever watched a "vimeo" video on a website? Seen a joke from "College Humor"? Read something linked from "", looked for a 'date' or shoes or a mortgage, or even watched that show about that survival guy.... yeah, those are all IAC companies.
      And compared to something like the terrible "G-word" outfit and the one we're coming to now, IAC is a nobody, even though their stock is priced at about twice what "face"'s is.

"Today more than two billion individuals are connected online. Akamai routinely delivers between fifteen and thirty percent of all Web traffic, and over two trillion web requests each day."

      To be fair, with some of these companies, to deliver the content they do deliver, and shovel the information they do back and forth between their customer base, each and every one of them would have to have a massive server farm, a busload of techies working around the clock, and a major fiber optic connection between them and their ISP, so it is cheaper and more efficient for them to hire Akamai and friends to do it for them. And, from the company's website, a good percentage of the top tier of the 'Big Money 501', do.

      As a side note: Akamai, as well as IAC and the North American Group mentioned earlier, use "g-analytics" on their sites as well. Like we said, the G-people have made themselves indispensible.

      Your information is almost worth more than your money to these people. For instance, if you open an email at all, no, we don't mean open it and click on the link inside, or answer it, or anything, just have it come up in your mailbox's "preview pane", one of those 'web beacons' we just mentioned can come in from a mail server somewhere in the world, and by doing so, tell the spammer that you got the email. Which means your address works.
      "Bingo!" some spammer just said.

      And for that matter, you don't even have to get a spam message.
      That beacon can be attached to an ad that pops up in your browser, say while you're reading your mail, or maybe checking in on your GFaceMyLinkedTweet... page.
      The beacon tells the advertiser that you are online.
      As many people tend to point their mouse cursor at what they are looking at, the ad's script tracks every time the pointer touches the ad, and for how long. If it is just, say, a fraction of a second, that is ignored as incidental. But maybe say, three seconds, means the user read the ad.
      "Bingo" some advertising manger just said.

      And if you click on the ad to either 'like' it or to go to the page.
      "...." well, the ad guy had to go out for a cigarette.

      Yes, you do not have to click anything in the ad on the social site for them to know you at least had a chance to see it.

      Again, your online activities and preferences are worth their weight in electrons to those who buy and sell such information.

"like" this if you "like" that

      "appearance of social acceptance of and by peers" really does mean something in the real world... Right?
      Yes it does, and that quote is how the Desk tried to explain why people will 'like' stuff online that they would have thought silly if you suggested it to them in the 'real world' just a short time ago.
      You have just told the world at large, including all of your relatives and coworkers, as well as your 'friends' that you 'like' JoBo's brand of Cat Food.

      A one off such as what the Desk did the other day as part of its research for this article could be written off as a joke.
      The Desk, who has been said to 'never tweets that it likes anything' on Social Sites, "liked" a particular brand of car. No, it's not one that it has ever, nor will ever, own. And only if you ignore the fact that the absolutely awful US edition of "Top Gear" exists and only watch the UK version would you know the name.
      The Desk, in a fit of sheer madness, "liked" a page devoted to the Pagani Zonda, a one million dollar (US), supercar, that it probably couldn't get into if you gave it the keys. And if it did, there's no room for fishing poles so it wouldn't fit the Desk's needs anyway so Mr. Leno can keep his.
      But guess what? All of the sudden there are now car dealer ads on the Desk's page, where before, there were seldom, if ever, any at all. Odd that, no?

      And guess what? Now all of the Desk's many thousands of 'friends', well, something under that. ... well ... Many under that. It's ahh, 40-some odd, almost. They will now see those ads as well. Because the businesses, or their online advertising companies, can track who else sees your 'likes' and who 'x's the ad when it pops up on their page. Really, why pay for an repeated exposure to somebody that's just going to kill it?

      The College Trained Social Scientist side of the Desk chewed on that whole idea for some time. And the only thing it could come up with was to agree with the assessment it came up with when it first began looking at the subject.
      Most people want most people to think better of them than they do. Now, as to what that has to do with "liking" some of the crap that people do is beyond the ken of this article.
      No, really, it is.
      A tally of some of the things the Desk has seen people 'like' just in the last couple of days would include: a potato chip brand, 'curvy' women, two different race car drivers (multiple), a union, 'spayed or neutered pets', an old movie, a new movie, bean soup, a couple of different types of music, professional baseball, and, believe it or not, Jesus.

      And, Yes, the Desk likes, say Jesus, and for that matter junk food and women, and racing, and movies and so on. But if you know the Desk, you know that, if you cared that is. And if you didn't know whether or not it 'liked' baseball, ask.

      One aspect of the idea of 'liking' something is to get in touch with other people that 'like' the same thing and perhaps spark conversation about it. Well, fine.
      According to the numbers on the social site, something on the order of 27,000 people also 'liked' the same old movie. Enjoy the conversation.
      Maybe you want to meet a local group that enjoys, well, listening to Jesus music while eating beans with their pets. That too is fine, and given the technology, it is possible to set up a pet friendly gospel concert and bean supper just down the road at the rental hall. But you might have better luck promoting it on the local Christian radio station and putting up a flier at the dogfood store than sharing it with the world at large.
      Still, some may find comfort in the knowledge that there are several thousand people who share the same 'likes', and if so, so be it. And the rest of us will adjust our settings to filter at least some of that out. And if we want to know if you 'like' old movies about racing drivers, we'll ask.

      Part of that is simply self defense because we don't want the world at large to know that we belong to a union or not.

      But it isn't just car dealers and charter tour operators (and their robots, see below) who are skimming that information from your account so they can target union members with their ads.
      No, sir.

      Many police agencies now routinely search the sites for clues from individuals involved in crimes because, for some reason, a lot of people when they do something criminal are stupid enough to tell somebody, who then posts it online, or they post it themselves, or both. And sometimes they do so with video that is admissible as evidence.

      And you also have Governmental bureaucrats keeping track of the members of various groups online who might be, in some way, subversive, or dangerous, or just uncooperative, or whatever. Such as activist groups, political third parties, those unhappy with a given policy, or whatever. And such new databases can be compared with existing files to come up with a mailing list of those who Uncle wants to keep track of, say, gun owners who are unhappy with a new policy and might join an activist group to vote out a certain type of politician. Or worse.
      Not only is it possible. It is being done.

      You don't have to go too far on news websites to see where one or another Federal Office is looking for ...

"...2012 Senate testimony also noted that the government has reviewed or requested Facebook data for purposes as varied as citizenship applications, criminal cases, and security checks. "We know that law enforcement asks for this information from Facebook," EFF attorney Jennifer Lynch said recently. "They don't just ask for your post, but all photos you've been tagged in." Access to Facebook data allows law enforcement officials to move beyond the blunt instrument of a mug shot or a driver's license photo to find people much more easily.
#5: Scanning in the name of cybersecurity...
You may not be a malicious hacker, but that doesn't mean your online activity won't be scanned for telltale signs of cybercrime. The federal government has made cybersecurity a high priority, as concerns grow about over the vulnerability of the nation's infrastructure to a computer-based attack." (see "security" link below)

"WASHINGTON - You have until April 15th to file a return - and the IRS will be collecting a lot more than just taxes this year. According to several reports, the agency will also be collecting personal information from sites like Facebook and Twitter. It says the effort is to catch people trying to beat the system, but some say it goes too far."

      Think about how much information the average user voluntarily puts on some of these social media sites. Even 'business' sites like "LinkPlax" ask for personal pictures and contact information.

"Your Plaxo contact card is currently missing a photo.
Add a photo to your contact card and ensure your important contacts can easily find your information and keep in touch.
The Plaxo team
Plaxo - your address book for life. "
Email from business networking site to the Desk's day job account during the production of this article. (the irony is almost too much to stand!)

      The Desk has seen people who should know better post information about where they work, where their kids go to school, some even list their Real birthdates, home phone number and street address. Yes the sites ask for it, but explain again why you filled in the blanks with accurate information when it would accept "101 Mud Street, Mytown, NJ"?
      On one of these sites the Desk has listed "1060 West Addison, Chicago" as its home address. Something it borrowed from the original Blues Brothers movie. And, yes, there have been rumblings about charging people who misrepresent or falsify online information with various crimes. So, for the record, the Desk has never listed "Wrigley Field" as its residence in a credit or utility service application, which would be fraud by any reasonable reading of existing laws. If Uncle wants to get all upset about the current address on a form for some social site, the Desk will simply delete its account. Oh well, again.
      But evidently the Desk is unusual in that it does make some effort to keep private information somewhat private.

      For this article the Desk went cruising through a couple of those Professional Networking sites, they're not "social" they are Business Related. Yeah, the difference is questionable at best. Anyway, the Desk went looking at what information was available to somebody who had not 'upgraded' their membership by paying some monthly fee, and got quite the shock.
      Besides office mailing and URL addresses and their main switchboard or contact phone numbers, which are more or less public record and generally available.... there were direct phone numbers and personal email addresses. There were also notes about the types of equipment they used for various things, including network gateways. One even had the comment about how they use a given brand name of business credit card for office purchases and payments.
      Hang on, these are 'professionals'. Most of them have some sort of credentials about how they are an expert in this or that. And they are letting the world at large know they have a "bumfuzzel" network server and use "Jack and Jill Credit Card".
      Some criminal has just gone out to join the ad manager we mentioned earlier for another cigarette.

      We won't even start with those on the FaceTwit sites. No.

"but the bad guys can get all that information anyway so..."

      So, why make it easier for them? Most criminals are on a tight schedule. And that includes most 'cyber terrorists'. They want soft targets so they go after the gullible, the unwary, and the overly na´ve. Such as people who click on spam emails or banner ads on websites to "see what they've got." (see link below to related article)
      If an organized group is going to engage in a serious attack against a major target, they're most likely going to go after a big bank, or the State Department, or even the TwitSpace server itself. But you never know.
      Sure, it's fun to "Tweet" stuff on GFace and maybe you can find a new job on PlaxIn, but thought should be given to what you are saying because, face it, once it is "out there" it stays "out there" and even the 'delete post' button only does so much. Think! Treat most details like you would the fact that you just bought an antique silver tea service for five thousand dollars. Would you want that right alongside your home address and the fact that you work 9 to 5 when you have no idea who has, or will, see it?
      It's like the advice the consumer protection people put out every year around "the holiday's", if you get a new TV, don't put the box out on the curb next to your old one. Yet every year, you see exactly that.

      The technology, as we'll see in a minute, is moving faster than anybody can keep up with, including those elsewhere in the industry. Not only is it three steps ahead of the regulators, the event horizon of the various aspects of bringing the science fiction aspects of some of this stuff into the real world comes at you from unexpected, and in some cases, unwelcome channels.

"it's not just to sell you stuff, it's about control of you, and your stuff"
-Doc L (explaining the reasons behind active data mining to a co-worker during production of this article.)

      To wit:

"Car manufacturer Lancia recently ran a campaign to support the launch of its new Ypsilon Methane in Italy.
Viewers of Cerco Casa Disperatamente, a house hunting show, might have noticed the car appearing on signage, PC monitors, and magazines - all of which was added in post production.
But if they also had the dedicated 'Lancia INTERACT TV' app on their smartphone an inaudible soundtrack from the TV would activate the device offering promotions related to the car."
      So yes, the technology is out there to not only send you a message, 'they' can send a message to your phone, or laptop, or whatever else is around, and have it do... well, anything they want. In the car ad scenario, the user had to download and enable the ap for the TV to talk to. How long before some sort of 'firmware' comes pre-installed? Or perhaps more likely, something comes in on the ap to use a social service and it just sits there until activated by a 'viewscreen' that is pumping out their 'inaudible soundtrack'?
      Or even better, a talking ad on your computer activates your phone to dial a call center to establish that murky 'business relationship' that allows a telemarketer to call you back. "I'm sorry sir, but somebody from this number called our 'for more information' line at five thirty yesterday, so I'm just returning the call."

      Nice, eh?

      And now, whoever said, "They won't do that," go do a quick web search for "Jivox".

      They may not be doing it today, but there's no promises about tomorrow.

Time to wrap this one up.

      If you voluntarily put your personal information out there, what are you doing? Proving to your friends that you're an individual of discerning and sophisticated taste?
      You're the one that the old carnival barker calls, 'an easy mark'.

      The "Web". The big nasty "Internet". That Information Superhighway of song and story, is still, for the most part, what you make it.
      Just you have to think about what you are making it.

Oh- and we didn't even really discuss this aspect at all: That some of your 'friends' aren't what they say they are.

"How safe is your online social network? Not very, as it turns out. Your friends may not even be human, but rather bots siphoning off your data and influencing your decisions with convincing yet programmed points of view. A team of computer researchers at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of British Columbia has found that hordes of social bots could not only spell disaster for large online destinations like Facebook and Twitter but also threaten the very fabric of the Web and even have implications for our broader economy and society"

(the proverbial 'bottom line')
In the end, nothing said above will change the daily social networking habits of those that "like everything" today, most of whom will not read the article to begin with
...those who don't have a social site account, or barely use the thing, won't alter their behaviors either. So, it all works out the same in the end.
-thank you

References outside sites will open in new window
In no significant order:

"If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it."
- Marcus Aurelius
The Emperor's book is downloadable for free from:

Other Links as mentioned

the hard cookie removal site:

'The following are the most likely reasons why your computer got populated with cookie:
You have directly visited
A website that you have visited uses some of the components (pages, files, images, and so on) of the website.
A software application with Internet-enabled functionality that had previously accessed the website was running on your PC (in this case, the cookie will be saved in Internet Explorer)"

One of the largest Content Delivery companies going:

The online security article mentioned above:

"Your online life may not seem worth tracking as you browse websites, store content in the cloud, and post updates to social networking sites. But the data you generate is a rich trove of information that says more about you than you realize--and it's a tempting treasure for marketers and law enforcement officials alike."

The IRS story on

"From the beginning, EFF has championed the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights. " Electronic Frontiers Foundation

What "Google" does with its cookies: is all about.... cookies

If you happen to need a fancy car: English available

Related Desk Articles:

"I click on them just to see what they've got" "Damnit"


Two the Desk wrote when all of this was just getting going: "What's Next?"
Converged Messaging

And a couple more outdated but still mildly interesting pages:

The Desk's tech page.

The Media Desk's Urban Legend and SPAM Info Page

Back to the Desk main page at: