How much privacy do you have? The answer is that you probably have a lot less privacy than you think.
If you have a Facebook account, have you ever gone to a non-Facebook page—a blog or an online magazine or newspaper—and then see your own Facebook profile photo next to a space for your comments?
This may surprise you, or it may strike you as terribly convenient. However, have you ever considered the threat to your personal privacy?
Web sites are, very commonly, businesses. As businesses, their visitors' personal information is a valuable commodity. Just collecting a name and an email address can bring money to a web site. Gaining other information about you is even more valuable.
Why is it valuable? Because your information can be used to sell targeted advertising to you. It could be used to send you spam, or make specific ads appear on web sites you visit. It could be sold to organizations that have little or nothing to do with the Internet, but gain knowledge and money from analyzing customer viewing and buying habits.
That's one reason why you see your Facebook image on non-Facebook sites: it allows Facebook to see what other sites you go to, even pay attention to the things you write. Facebook collects a huge amount of data about you, and other businesses that use Facebook will collect even more.
Wired Magazine reported that, at least in one case, Facebook collected 1200 pages of data in 57 categories on just one person. The data collection is automated, of course, but they do collect a great deal of information about everyone on their services. They know your name, birthday, age, place of work, school you graduated from, what your interests are, what your political affiliations are, and much, much more. You can read Facebook's Data Policy, and if you can ignore the friendly-sounding prose and read between the lines, you can see that your life is an open book to them—for marketing purposes. After all, Facebook is "free" for a reason.
You may notice that there are a lot of "fun" activities on Facebook, such as "What Harry Potter character would you be?" or other kinds of personality tests. While interesting and enjoyable, they nevertheless collect a mountain of personal information about you—and usually, you have no idea who they are or why they are really doing this. For some of these "games," you are tricked into giving up your personal information, shopping preferences, personal history, who your friends are, where you live, what job and income level you have, and a lot more.
For example, I once found an interesting-looking survey which promised to identify my political placement on a chart relative to various candidates and famous thinkers. When I started to take the survey, the first thing they did was to demand my ZIP code. Why? They said it was to identify my political district—but in fact, it is a data point about you. You might agree to do this because it does not identify you personally.
I next got a page asking the kinds of questions I expected—ones about my political beliefs. This was followed by a page asking questions about which politicians I liked or disliked.
However, I then got pages asking many very personal questions which have no relation to placing me on a political chart. Questions like "What is your sex?" "Where and in which year were you born?" "What is the highest level of education that you have completed?" Questions about my job, my salary, my religion, my race, and other personal information.
At this point, you might think, "Okay, they're just being thorough, and I am still anonymous." However, the next page after that, they came to my "results"—results which were covered up by a demand to post the results to Facebook. Which would identify exactly who I am. If you complete all of this, the organization would have probably as much detail about you as a bank would when you apply for a loan!
Not all online surveys go this far, but there are many, and they are tricky about how they collect data on you.
Nor is Facebook the only organization that spies on you. Most business-related and especially "free" web services do this. They want, as much as possible, to get all kinds of information about you. It happens everywhere. Whenever you apply for anything, from a store membership to a free-ice-cream-on-your-birthday, they are collecting information about you—such as when you were born, for example. Many shops use "Loyalty Cards," cards which offer "members" a discount on goods in the store; in Japan, these are often "Point cards." All of them are designed to not only collect your personal information when you sign up, but then to track every purchase you make—what you buy, how much you buy, how often you buy it, when you buy it, and where you buy it.
Everything, from your name to your phone number, birthday, address, or even shopping habits, is a "data point." These data points are then bought and sold by marketing and other corporations, who stitch together the different pieces of data to create a much larger and very complete set of data about you.
This is happening to you every day, and you are probably unaware of it.
One way that companies track you is with cookies. Cookies were intended to be useful to you. They save information necessary to use a web site. For example, if you have to use a password, cookies allow you to move from page to page after typing in the password only once, and can remember you from an earlier visit.
However, they can do much more than that. They can stay on your computer for years, watching which sites you visit, collecting information on your browsing habits, communicating with various other web sites that collect data on you, and report back that information to the web site that gave you the cookie.
For example, I did a small experiemnt: I cleared my browser and erased all cookies. I then visited the CNN web site. I went first to the main page, then looked at two news stories. I then checked my cookies again. This is what I saw:
In all, a total of 81 cookies were placed on my computer within just 10 seconds or so. One of those was for "DoubleClick," an advertising company:
The expiration data was two years after my visit. In the past, I have encountered cookies with a lifetime of up to twenty years—essentially, for as long as you own your computer or continue using the browser data.
The cookies can identify you in many ways, and add to the tracking done on you.
What Can I Do?
In one sense, you can never completely escape being monitored. However, there are steps you can take:
- Use Different Browsers: Download all major browsers. Use one browser for social media, another for news and research, another for entertainment, etc. Browsers generally do not communicate with each other.
- Clear Your Cookies Often: While this may disable automatic login or other conveniences for many sites, it also increases your privacy. Go to the browser settings and look for a "Privacy" label.
- Use Plug-ins.: There are various extension, plug-ins, or other add-ons for browsers which increase privacy. AdBlocker helps (and blocks ads!); Facebook Blocker stops Facebook's attempts to track you over various web sites. Look for any privacy additions to the browser(s) you use.
- DON'T Use Plug-ins: Be very cautious about which plug-ins you use; some carry malware or spyware! Only use ones that are popularly recommended and noted as trusted by publicatuions you believe are reliable.
- Don't Get Personal: Avoid posting the more personal information about yourself, including personal preferences and medical information, for example. Avoid taking any survey which asks about you personally, no matter how fun it looks.
- Check Your Preferences: Your browser usually has preferences about how cookies work and how you can further protect your privacy. Review them and set them to your liking.
- Install Anti-virus: You should do this anyway!
- Use a VPN: They cost from about $4 a month, encode your data, and make it difficult to identify your location.
- Cover Your WebCam: You don't want anyone to see what you do in front of your computer screen!