Why Orbitz' sneaky web tracking is your problem, too

Summary:Orbitz, the online travel site whose business model is built on the word "cheap," says it treats you differently depending on whether you're a Mac or a PC. That's just the start of a privacy problem most people never think about.

When the subject of web privacy comes up, most people only think the issue through halfway.

The obvious controversy is over collection of personally identifiable information, which can be aggregated, collated, stored, and shared. That's bad enough, but there's another, more subtle problem:

When websites profile you, they're making guesses about who you are. Those guesses are often based on tiny scraps of information that someone else has gathered, with or without your consent.

That meager dossier allows a business to paint a picture of you that is almost completely random. And if this "personalization" is done without your consent (or without disclosure), it means you end up with results that are not trustworthy on their face.

Orbitz, the discount travel site, has provided a basic example that demonstrates the problem clearly.

On its home page, Orbitz provides a 158-word pitch for itself that includes the word cheap nine times:

Sign up for deals by e-mail for special offers, discounts on hotel reservations, cheap airfare deals and more. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get updates on cheap hotels, giveaways, cheap tickets and promotions.

The copy urges you to "make Orbitz your only stop for travel deals," with talk of cheap hotels and cheap travel rates, followed by a promise: "We'll get you there on the cheap with hotel discounts, cheap airfare and more."

The same parent company owns the site CheapTickets.com. The entire corporate mission is built around the word "cheap."

Got that? The Orbitz customer is showing up because he or she thinks "cheap is good."

But if you use a Mac to visit Orbitz, the company decides on your behalf that you don't really want their primary service. Instead, they skew the results so you see more expensive offerings first:

According to the Wall Street Journal, travel site Orbitz has been able to segment its audience in Apple and Windows camps. The upshot: Mac users will pay $20 to $30 a night more on hotels than PC users.

The Journal noted: "The sort of targeting undertaken by Orbitz is likely to become more commonplace as online retailers scramble to identify new ways in which people’s browsing data can be used to boost online sales."

Now, let's be clear. Orbitz isn't charging Mac users more for the same room. But they are showing you more expensive options on the first page if they detect that you are using a Mac. And most people don't go past that first page when they make a buying decision. If you use a Windows PC, you'll see a result that is more in keeping with the company's mission.

On Twitter, Orbitz CEO Barney Harford says everyone's got it wrong:

That's technically true. But this undisclosed "personalization" breaks the promise that the company makes with its web site.

That link in Harford's tweet goes to a post he wrote and got USA Today to publish back in May. It conflates information that potential customers provide ("you start a hotel search and tell us you want to visit Orlando this summer with your kids") with information it sniffs without your knowledge or direct input ("We can use that information to influence which hotels we recommend to users we see searching on a Mac or an iPad versus a PC.")

And let's not kid ourselves that this is the only way Orbitz is skewing results. As the Journal notes:

Orbitz's chief executive, Barney Harford, has made data mining a priority. Shortly after joining the company in 2009, the former Expedia executive opened a small office in Sunnyvale, Calif., and recruited statisticians with backgrounds from eBay Inc. and Google Inc. for a new analytics team.

In fact, Orbitz is at least in part an advertising company.  In its latest quarterly SEC filing, Orbitz (NYSE:OWW) reported revenue of $11.4 million (6% of total revenue) from advertising and media.

Orbitz brags about its tracking and targeting capabilities in its pitch to would-be advertisers:

And the company also brags about its expertise in "re-targeting" you. If you "expressed intent" and "did not convert"—in other words, if you looked around but didn't buy—you can expect to be bombarded with ads for hours or days:

Now, you won't find these explanations or anything close to them on the customer-facing pages at Orbitz. That's deliberate. If you knew it was going to happen, you would probably say no. That's why companies like Orbitz don't ask your permission to collect and use information about you when you visit their website.

And that's why I firmly believe that privacy settings should be on by default, and that the companies we do business with should be required to establish a business relationship and ask permission before they target you.

They should also be required to disclose when their display of information is based in whole or in part on data they've collected using tracking tools. If you willingly sign up as a customer and provide information about yourself so that they can customize the display to match your expressed desires, that's great. But don't secretly push more expensive products based on random little bits of information.

My colleague Larry Dignan noted: "From an analytics perspective, targeting by operating system and pricing accordingly may not be such a bad idea. The bonehead move of the century is Orbitz yapping about it."

I disagree. I'm glad Orbitz decided to brag about its capabilities, because it gives us a solid, real-world example of why and how consumers are being secretly tracked and how that information is being used.

I'd like to hear lots more stories like this. They make great evidence in the fight for more online privacy and adequate disclosure.

See also:

Topics: Apple

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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