You're Giving Up More Privacy Than You Think

3 years ago

Remember when you were a kid and you had no privacy? Your parents had to know where you were at all times. They knew how you were spending your allowance. Half the time they could tell you verbatim the argument you had just had with your best friend because they were walking by your bedroom and listening quietly for a moment during the play date.  Of course, if you asked them any personal questions about their private life, they told you that it was none of your business.

They invaded your privacy to keep you safe. Because they were accountable for your life. And the reason the information only flowed in one direction (unless you were a snoop) was because they only invaded your privacy to help you learn how to age safely into adulthood.  They didn't need your help to grow up, thank you very much.

We have a similar situation of surveillance in the world today, though it isn't being done by people who have your best interests at heart.  The people collecting the information are using it to drain you of your allowance (fine, pay check) vs. help you make sensible decisions about your money.  Your parents invaded your privacy to keep you safe.  Data brokers are invading your privacy to sell you something.

Every app you use, every search you do in Google, every video you watch on YouTube, every Upworthy headline you click... it's all being tracked.  And information experts can use that culled information to make some pretty startlingly accurate statements about you.  You can watch this segment on 60 Minutes about data brokers (or read the transcript) to understand more.

This isn't a new phenomenon, but the scope has changed with the advent of online activities.  60 Minutes states,

The largest data broker is Acxiom, a marketing giant that brags it has, on average, 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans. 

That's a lot of information.  There are a little under 314 million Americans.  That means that they have at least 1,500 pieces of information on about 2/3rds of all Americans.  And less information -- but they still have information -- on 1/3rd of all Americans.  If you are currently an adult living in the US that uses the Internet, chances are you fit into that 2/3rds category.

What are these coveted pieces of information?  Your "religion, ethnicity, political affiliations, user names, income, and family medical history. And that's just for openers."

Image: G4ll4is via Flickr

The thing is, we're giving up a lot of information; literally handing it to these data brokers.  We're hitting "like" on Facebook for the brands we buy.  We're putting up a tweet about Easter baskets.  We're checking into places on Foursquare.  We're joining dating sites and filling out those questionnaires, and all the information in those questionnaires are being sent along -- under your name or via your IP address that can be attached to your name through other data points -- to a data farm via advertisers and metrics.

In an effort to share our lives with our friends and family, we're also sharing our lives with every data broker on the planet.

Data collection is also happening in those apps that make us happy or make our lives "easier."  According to that same 60 Minutes segment,

And if you're one of the billion people who have downloaded the popular game app Angry Birds to your smart phone, or you were one of the 50 million people who downloaded "Brightest Flashlight Free" app, you didn't realize that the companies that gave them to you for free were using the apps to track your every movement and pass it along to other companies. 

In other words, just because it's "free" doesn't mean that it's actually free.  You're paying for the app with your information.

Movies such as last year's Terms and Conditions May Apply are shedding light on just how much we're being tracked -- even when we don't go online.  But moreover, today kicks off the American Library Association's Choose Privacy week.

This initiative runs from May 1 - 7th, and the ALA has compiled great information to get people knowledgeable so the information flows in two directions and you know how your data is being collected and can make decisions on which apps to download or websites to visit.

Just as data brokers are collecting information on you, you deserve to be collecting information on their activities.  Unlike the surveillance your parents did back when you were a child, these data miners don't have your best interests at heart.

Did the scope of surveillance surprise you, and are you rethinking some of those apps on your phone or your online activities?

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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