Fighting What Big Data Knows About You

Big Data

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A couple of times a year we get questions as to how to stop, or at least slow down, the data collectors from gathering our personal information and selling it to others. And, of course, we try to update and pass on to you some of our best tips. Here’s why:

We live in a world where privacy is no longer possible. When you download a phone app do you look at all the data you are giving others they collect from you? (see the video at the bottom of this article). Or when you install a new computer program, do you take time to read the EULA? Most people do neither; they just click through to the installation.

What if you were invited to a small party, and when you arrived the host joyfully introduced you to the other guests:

“Hi, glad you could make it. I’d like to introduce my friend Joe.

“He’s not a sports fan, drinks a little too much, waffles between being a conservative or a liberal based on the latest scandal, and has been known to spend his evenings snooping on his female coworkers’ Facebook pages. Joe has high blood pressure and some disturbing cholesterol levels that just might indicate he’s secretly consuming a large amount of sweets.

“And here’s Carla. She likes HBO – a lot – can only afford a Chevy but dreams of a Lexus, gets all her makeup from the discount counter at CVS, and is a secret smoker. She has a condo, but keeps getting behind on payments, and visits a guy two buildings over in her complex rather late in the evening once or twice a week.

“And over here is Jack, who had a DWI last year and was recently fired for drinking at work … ”

Well, that would be some party, wouldn’t it? I have a feeling a round of introductions like that would shut the party down rather quickly.

But let’s face it — all of that information – about Joe and Carla, me and you – is out there for the taking. As an example, Facebook is collecting information on what you look at, the article links to go to, all of your comments, photos and memes you post, and the friends you approve and all of their information as well. All because you subscribed to their service.

Google is collecting your search, mapping, Gmail, and documents history, and even keeps copies of your purchase receipts of items you bought and received acknowledgement through your gmail account.

And your Internet provider has logs of your online travels that are matched with your web searches for vacation spots and dining locations.

Your credit card company knows what you buy. Even if you pay cash, your loyalty card records every purchase at the grocery or drugstore. All you have to do is use it in conjunction with a credit card one time to link up the data. All of your credit card purchases are linked together through your common credit card number.

Your texts and emails, of course, are collected and catalogued in case “someone” decides they want to read them at another time. Even the prescriptions you buy are one data leak away from being public record – assuming your pharmacy or credit card company hasn’t already shared the information without your knowledge.

There’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that the horses are out of the barn.

The info that Big Data has on us is daunting, and a little bit scary. There is a complex network of folks who gather your data including stores, websites, credit card companies, Internet providers and online services that you subscribe to. Then there are the companies whose names you’ve never heard of that combine it all into your own personal profile. Finally, there are the ad providers who take those recommendations and serve you up targeted ads.

And don’t forget about any government agencies collecting data for their own use. If you get caught up in a lawsuit, the other side has the ability to subpoena much of that personal information and use it against you. And even worse, if you get charged with a crime, the prosecution can subpoena that information along with even more information you thought was private. And guess what, those data collection firms gladly turn it over.

It’s not a pretty picture. This is the stuff of Big Brother nightmares.

But remember that most of what we do on the Web is free. It’s free because all of those companies and government agencies have made US the product. They buy and sell US in the form of our data profiles to make money. Yes, WE are the product. For better or worse, it’s the world we live in, so it isn’t going away.

Now the good news. There are some steps you can take to minimize the risk. Here’s what I do to sleep a little better at night.

  1. Poke around in your browser preferences and make sure third-party cookies are disabled. Those are what advertisers use for tracking. Depending on the browser you use you might be nagged into enabling those bad cookies. That’s going to be a choice only you can make.
  2. Change your birth date on Facebook. This might make it a little harder for an advertiser to match you up with whatever profile they have on you, unless you have an incredibly unique name, of course! You can do this with other sites that require your birth date during registration as well.
  3. Clear your Facebook and Google search histories in their settings. This doesn’t completely wipe them out right away, but it does anonymize them.
  4. Log out of Facebook when you’re not actively snooping on friends’ posts. This keeps it from tracking your browsing through Facebook widgets on other sites. You do know, of course, that if another site has one of the blue thumbs-up Facebook widgets then that site is tracking you regardless if you click that widget or not. Thank you Facebook for stalking us everywhere we go.
  5. Create one or more anonymous email accounts for your activities on the Web. Use one or two real ones for your personal needs, and make one or two fake ones for subscribing to web services or signing into social media.
  6. Go to Aboutthedata.com and see what’s known about you. You can even go here and opt out of one advertising consortium’s ad-targeting. And don’t forget about Google. Your Google account knows an awful lot about you; Go to your My Activity page and limit the company’s ad profiles of your Google activity. You can see what the service thinks it knows about you – and opt-out of future interest-based ads across the web.
  7. If you are logged in to your Gmail account Google is tracking your every move. Here’s how to stop that.
  8. All of today’s major web browsers—Chrome, Edge, Firefox, and Safari—offer a feature that provides a private browsing window and deletes the browsing history on your computer after you close it. It doesn’t hide your web activity like a VPN can, but it does keep your browser from saving cookies that will alert sites when you visit again. But do you know what it really does?
  9. And yes, your smartphone is tracking you too. Both Apple and Android phones let you block ad tracking. Dig down through the Settings tab and turn tracking buttons off.

This video is a wake-up for many smart-phone users as to the extent your phone is spying on you:

PHONE-DATA PRIVACY PROJECT

Be Safe – Backup Your Data Regularly!

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