Digital Tracking and, correspondingly, the Big Data it produces is like every other technology in this world, including books: it can be used to the benefit or detriment of humanity. There are huge ethical considerations about what use and how much of it is appropriate, and I myself am a bit torn on the subject. The vast amounts of data collected can be used to better understand human psychology, perhaps at a scale that traditional experimental methods cannot accomplish, and this knowledge can be utilized in different ways. On one hand you have the Cambridge Analytica case, showcasing how this data can be used to manipulate people at a societal level with huge consequences. On the other hand you can, for example, take the results of this controversial Facebook experiment, wherein people’s social feeds were manipulated to see how it affected their emotional levels, and use it to create a happy user-base–by using the findings, reducing the negative to positive content ratio on peoples’ feeds, and improving their emotional health (to whatever extent it can). On the other other hand, that same data from that same experiment can be carefully implemented by Facebook to control peoples’ emotions (to whatever extent it can) towards some sinister end goal.
Data tracking has the potential to be used for more than just capitalism and marketing; it can be used to better understand human behaviour, and I do not think there should be an imposed limit on what kind of tracking can take place – so long as it is all transparent, honest, and consensual. I think of the internet as a shopping mall, and Facebook, or any other website, a storefront–If you are entering somebody’s website (if you are entering somebody’s store), they have the right to know and understand who their customer base is, they have the right to know a little bit about you. In a physical store, they can know this from physical cues (the owner sees you enter the store. Maybe you’re wearing a shirt that says something, or maybe you go directly to a specific section to browse. It gives cues of your interest), or from social cues (the owner strikes up a conversation with you to find out what you like, to be able to make a recommendation for you). There might be a loyalty rewards program, tracking your purchases to understand your likes and tailor recommendations to you. Online just has different ways of tracking your behaviour and the potential to generate a lot of data from its tracking automatically.
For me, unethical comes in at the use stage. Once all of this data is acquired, it can be used to better serve the customer, the patron, the person regularly visiting your site, etc. But it can be used in terrible ways – sold to other corporations, weaponized to manipulate people at a societal level, etc. When identity becomes a commodity, data has gone just a touch too far.
When your online behaviour on one website affects how another website responds to your browser, then I think there’s a problem. Much like the pizza demonstration from Ghostery, it’s a little unsettling to have your information spread without your consent.
To get back to the question, now that I’ve laid out my stance, I’ll relate this to the publishing industry. Publishers, platforms, distributers, etc, have the right to collect information on their customers. The Jellybooks example of tracking reader behaviour in ebooks. But, say, if my reading habits on my ebook started to influence advertisements I see on my laptop chrome browser, then there is unethical and, what I think should be illegal, distribution of that information without my express permission.
As a data collector, the person or corporation collecting the data should be responsible and held accountable for the data collected. But they can certainly collect data to help them better serve the customer, if they so choose, and if they are transparent and receive consent for their use of it.