The world is spying on you, and you don’t really even know it. A recent recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal concludes that spying on consumers in order to sell their data is one of the fastest-growing Internet businesses. Here is a summary of the most striking findings:
“The study found that the nation’s fifty top Web sites on average installed sixty-four pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning … the Journal found new tools that scan in real time what people are doing on a Web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests, and even medical conditions. These profiles of individuals, constantly refreshed, are bought and sold on stock market-like exchanges.”
The tracking software records and analyzes your browsing patterns. It knows if you’re surfing porn sites, researching bipolar disorder or watching teen movie trailers. With startling accuracy, it interprets these patterns and sells the information to Web sites, sometimes within seconds, that want access to your wallet. What’s the big deal, you ask? Why not let them market to us in highly targeted ways?
That seems reasonable, within limits. We are all slowly being boiled like frogs. This month, Big Brother knows which movies I “Like,” what keywords I typed into Google and what books I checked out at the library. Next month they’ll attach our name, address, and credit profile to the database so that they can instantly evaluate whether I should be their customer. Because they erode our privacy over time, we don’t notice that we’re being boiled alive!
According to the Journal, if the tracking software estimates that you are a low-income individual, you will likely be shown a higher interest rate credit card when you visit the Capital One Web site. If you’ve been researching bipolar disorder on Dictionary.com (which downloads 234 tracking programs onto your computer without alerting you), the next insurance Web site you visit might no longer have a policy that fits you. In another example listed in the article, banks are beginning to consider looking at the credit worthiness of your social networking friends to determine your credit worthiness.
We can’t just blame this on the businesses that want to market to us. They exist to make money and strive to advertise to us in the best way possible. But we don’t have to just sit around and give away all of our precious information.
I recommend these steps to keep ourselves out of the hot water, including:
- Delete the cache of tracking cookies on your computer that share information without your consent
- Customize the privacy settings in your browser to minimize information leakage and to regularly delete tracking software like cookies
- Use the “Private Browsing” feature in Safari, Firefox, and IE when you don’t want your browsing history stored on your computer
- Lock down your social-networking profiles so that marketing companies can’t skim your personal information
- Consider using anonymizing software like the Tor Project, Abine, or Better Privacy
- Understand that when you are on the Internet, you are being tracked, and surf accordingly