Spy on yourself online
Forget spyware. Here comes myware. Soon you'll collect data on your own Web use for fun and profit.
Erick Schonfeld, BUSINESS 2.0 editor at large

NEW YORK (Business 2.0) - For a nice dose of paranoia, open up your Web browser preferences and take a look at your cookies.

Every click at Amazon.com, every search at Google, and all the stops in between are reported back to the websites you visit. All you get in return is the odd suggestion for a bird feeder you might want to purchase or some text ads you might want to click on.

Then there's the truly malicious stuff -- spyware that inserts itself on your computer's hard drive and reports back everything you do to some spammer or an online marketer willing to pay the price.

Strange as it may sound, though, soon you may be spying on yourself. Why would anyone want to do that? Entrepreneur Seth Goldstein, whose startup Root Markets aims to create a financial market for consumer data, offers a compelling reason.

"Everybody else is spying on me," he says, "so I want to spy on myself."

But Goldstein wants a better copy of his online behavior than anyone else has, and he wants to have complete control over who gets to see it. Instead of spyware, he calls the software that will let him do this "myware."

Beyond the curiosity factor, he sees myware as a way people can deal with information overload simply by measuring how they spend time online. He also sees it as valuable information that they someday could exchange for something else beneficial.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo are trying to collect as much information about you as possible. Whenever you sign up with them for a service that requires a password (such as e-mail, My Yahoo, or personalized search), you are laying the groundwork for them to one day track your behavior across different parts of the Web through your online identity. If this information is so valuable, why not collect it yourself?

Taken together, the books you buy on Amazon, the movies you rent from Netflix, and the stories you read on www.nytimes.com all say something about who you are. They make up your clickstream, the history of all the places you visit and all the things you do online.

"All those streams of online data are what make me me," insists Goldstein.

His company is in the early stages of testing a myware service called Root Vaults (http://root.net/), an information bank that stores all the sites you visit and shows graphs of which ones you visit the most, how many hours you spend online each day, as well as the topics the sites can be grouped into (such as business, travel, or news). The first step to deal with information overload, after all, is to measure it.

Root Vaults work in conjunction with a piece of myware supplied by a nonprofit called AttentionTrust.org (spearheaded by tech journalist Steve Gillmor). Right now, it only works with the Firefox browser by adding an "attention recorder" extension. You can choose whether to send this data to your Root Vault, some other service, or just store it on your computer.

Any company that uses this data must agree to four basic principles: the data is the property of the user, it can be moved from one service or device to another at will, it can be exchanged for something of value, and the user has the right to know who is using it and how.

With these principles in mind, Goldstein hopes to bring advertisers and publishers into the mix and create a market for consumer data. His co-founder and chairman is Lew Ranieri, the Wall Street financier who helped launch the mortgage-backed securities market in the 1980s. Besides your clickstream data, you will be able to add other data to your vault, such as your address, social security number, or credit scores. Goldstein emphasizes, "It is the user's data, not ours."

But if a travel marketer made a sweet offer for access to, say, the travel-related sites you visit so that he can send you deals on places you like to read about, you would be able to strike that bargain.

Or if you are looking to refinance your home, you might make available your credit score to home lenders along with your clickstream for real-estate sites. (If a lender sees you've been spending three hours a day looking at real-estate listings, he is more likely to bid for your attention with a lower rate or a special deal).

Root Markets would sit in the middle, presumably taking a tiny slice off each transaction.

Whether or not Root Markets catches on, the idea of controlling the data about your own consumer behavior is a powerful one. And at least online, collecting that clickstream information is a relatively easy thing to do.

So expect to see more companies that help you do creative things with your clickstream. Some will give you complete control over how your data is used, like Root Markets. Others will entice you with a cool service to capture that data so that they can then improve their service even more.

A U.K. startup called Last.fm fits into this category. It offers a free software download that records a history of all the music you listen to on your PC, and then shares that with other Last.fm members. Based on your listening habits, it creates a personalized radio stream for you over the Internet, and lets you see what other people with similar musical tastes are listening to as well.

Your clickstream, in this case, is your playlist (the collection of songs you click on the most). By sharing it, you contribute to a social good (discovering new music) that you yourself may benefit from.

Today, companies collect information about us and consider it theirs. If myware becomes more prevalent, we will be collecting the information ourselves and either selling it to the highest bidder or sharing it with those who choose to give something back. How do you like those cookies?


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