“If you’re not paying for the service, you’re the product.” - blue_beetle, Metafilter
From cookies to Google Streetview, Facebook to cellular providers, everyone these days is collecting information that we used to consider private. What are the main ways your online data is collected? Should you worry?
Data collection is everywhere. Retailers, credit bureaus, banks, government agencies, ISPs, and many others have been gathering and selling your data for a long time.
What’s new is the size of the market for personal data. A herd of online middlemen, including Advertising.com, DoubleClick, BlueKai, and RapLeaf either collect and trade personal data for profit or provide a service involving that data. As Big Data continues to take hold in the business world, information that used to be a dead end, such as the route you usually take to get to the gas station, is suddenly valuable to somebody.
Big Data, Big Returns
Marketers use Big Data platforms to analyze and make predictive models from disparate information sources, from your web surfing habits to location check-ins. If they play their analyses right, marketers can gain lifelong returns from their investment in data collection.
Target, for example, has customer Big Data down to such a science that its computers can tell when a woman is pregnant. Depending on how far along her pregnancy is, Target sends the mother-to-be coupons for products she’s most likely to buy. In the process, Target can secure her brand loyalty. Once the woman gives birth, she’s more likely to buy the diapers, formula, and baby powder that Target also happens to sell. As her children grow older, she can still find everything she needs for them at Target, steadily contributing to the company’s bottom line.
Where They’re Getting Information
Social Media: As Mark Zuckerberg famously said, “The age of privacy is over.” Clearly, Zuckerberg doesn’t have ethical issues with the idea of an anonymous third party collecting his personal information, re-packaging it, and selling it to marketers for profit. That’s a major way his own company, Facebook, is designed to make money.
Facebook is easy to single out because it’s so big, but other social media sites, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, also don’t display much reverence for privacy. If you use the “Find Friends” feature on Twitter, company servers store your address book for 18 months at a time. LinkedIn’s social advertising feature, now discontinued, would use your name and photograph in third-party ads without opt-in permission. It’s safe to assume that whatever you put on a social media site is fair game for collection. Even if you’re trying to safeguard yourself, interested parties still have ways of finding out about you.
Cookies: According to The Economist, 72% of Internet privacy policies allow third-party tracking. A different survey by Keynote Systems found that 86% of the Internet’s most popular websites used third-party cookies, with 60% of websites hosting cookies that violate industry best practices (for example, they collect your personal data to sell).
Wherever you surf online, odds are that cookies are collecting your browsing habits, from the items you buy for your children to the types of health-related articles you read, and folding them into your consumer profile. Some cookies track you for months or years. You can block them by changing the settings on your browser, downloading marketers’ opt-out cookies, or using a one-stop browser add-on like Ghostery.
Games: Social games are another kind of beast when it comes to privacy. Many socially-enabled games and quizzes require users to agree that apps can view and access all of their social media information, including friends’ profile information, as well as to permit the game to post on their behalf. Users must either agree to the app’s desires or not play the game. It’s not exactly a fair bargain, but it’s one that many users are willing to make.
Mobile: Local online revenues are predicted to hit $42.5 billion per year in 2015. In other words, there’s a premium on data coming from your mobile device. The “Big Four” cell providers — Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile — already collect and sell packages containing users’ anonymized Web browsing history and location data. Emerging mobile technologies promise even more refined user information. Near-field communication technology, which enables wireless payments and neat mobile tricks such as unlocking your hotel room door with your smartphone, will offer data on how, where, and when you interacted with the physical world. Geolocation, through which your mobile device communicates where you are at any given moment, will share your movement patterns and daily habits.
It’s gold for marketers, but also, as Zuckerberg said, the end of privacy.
Augmented Reality: This toddler of a technology has the most frightening privacy implications yet. In the not-too-distant future, it may become common to walk into a bar, hold up your smartphone (or just wear your Google Glasses), and watch your device generate peoples’ Facebook, Twitter, and Match.com profiles underneath their faces. Maybe your insurance agent will be able to focus his device on your face and see your credit score, past misdemeanors, history of car accidents, and card balances in a single glance. It’s Terminator 2 on a massive scale.
These scenarios sound horrifying and may not come to materialize as described, but the fact is that these technologies are just about here, and will bring privacy to the forefront like never before.
Is Your Data Ever Really Safe?
Let’s say you’re okay with advertisers collecting your data, you’re all right with the augmented reality thing, and you love the benefits that come with a networked world. In that case, the only remaining issue would be the occasional software bug or malicious hack, opening up your data to the wrong people.
A recent Facebook bug exposed users’ private messages on their Walls. Earlier this year, 6.5 million LinkedIn passwords appeared on an online forum in Russia. No website is truly secure, it seems, so it’s worth considering that the more you share in a single location, the more can be revealed to people you would never want to see it.