How Your Privacy Is Being Violated, and How to Protect Yourself

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

People have given up on Internet privacy. According to a Pew Research Center study done in 2013, almost 60 percent of users polled believe you can’t remain anonymous on the Internet.

“People would like control over their information. In many cases it is very important to them that only they or the people they authorize should be given access to such things as the content of their emails, the people to whom they are sending emails, the place where they are when they are online, and the content of the files they download,” Pew said in the report.

People have become so frustrated with these reports on corporate and government tracking that most have become apathetic. When approached with questions on how they feel about Internet spies, the common response is “I’ve got nothing to hide, so why should I care?” But a teenager in Minneapolis had nothing to hide until she got pregnant.

The teenager in Minneapolis wasn’t outed by her growing baby bump–it was Target. The father of the teenage girl had found baby coupons addressed to his daughter sent to their house from the department store. Outraged, he thought the retailer was trying to encourage his daughter to get pregnant, but he later found out that Target knew his daughter was pregnant before he did, and the company knew based on her purchasing habits.

Andrew Pole, a statistician, had just started working at Target when marketers approached him wanting to know if he could figure out if buyers were pregnant based on their purchases. The retailer wanted to reach expecting parents before the baby was even born.

“If you use a credit card or a coupon, or fill out a survey, or mail in a refund, or call the customer help line, or open an e-mail we’ve sent you or visit our Web site, we’ll record it and link it to your Guest ID. We want to know everything we can.,” Pole said in an interview with The New York Times.

He took that data and made sense of it, which led Target to create coupon mailing campaigns based on your profile. It’s a little creepy. Some consumers may not mind the tailored attention, but what happens if that information is leaked to the public or a hacker gets a hold of it. Do you think that Guest ID will protect your anonymity?

It didn’t take a statistician long to make sense of user No. 4417749 when AOL released the search records it had compiled to the public in 2006. AOL had used these ID numbers to help anonymize particular users and their search queries, but searches are often highly personal. Oftentimes we’ll search for locations nearby, family members, or ourselves. It didn’t take the Internet long to find out user No. 4417749 was Thelma Arnold. AOL took these user searches down, but the records still exist on other stored pages, like AOL Stalker. There are piles of data on anyone who buys something online, searches in Google, Yahoo, or Bing, or goes on social media, this data helps advertisers sell you products and services, but it can be sold to more than just retailers.

If you read over most company’s Terms of Service you’ll find that by using Google or Linkedin you’re agreeing that your information can be stored and sold for a profit. You may think, “What does it matter if it’s free?” But it costs you in little ways you may not realize.

Back in 2012, the online travel agency Orbitz noticed Apple users spent $20-$30 more on hotels on a nightly basis. The company used this information and started listing more expensive hotel options in the search results to Mac users only. Customers looking at the same hotel room on Macs or PCs wouldn’t see different pricing, though, just a different list of hotels. This technique put users into filtered bubbles merely based off of their operating system. While influencing buying habits may seem like small potatoes, this instance is just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2010 The Wall Street Journal reported on insurance companies that were using data compiled on consumers buying habits and other Internet activities to determine their rates. Insurance companies use blood and urine samples to analyze a person’s health risks, which is a costly process. But by obtaining information from data-mining companies, such as social networks, searches, and online shops, the cost to scrutinize your life is significantly reduced. Companies could look at what kind of food you purchase, seeing if there could be a risk of diabetes from stopping at McDonald’s or buying too much junk food.

The marketing data collected from these stores and other corners of the Internet to help improve advertising and consumer buying habits could also hurt you by telling others about those bulk purchases of Lays chips. Those chips could be for a party or you could be eating all of them by yourself. Your affiliation with a cancer volunteer group could call into question the clean bill of health you gave your family members on your initial report. It’s invasive and draws many similarities to how a stalker behaves—watching from a distance, following you everywhere you go, and taking note of everything you do.

The unfortunate thing is that all this information you give away to third parties is considered public information, which means you’re not protected under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. This means a warrant isn’t required to go through your GChat conversations, your Google Voice transcripts, your search records—the list goes on. All those things you thought you were searching for in private can be dug up so long as they can get a subpoena. Divorce lawyers (who are considered officers of the court in some states) consider this a boon to their jobs.

They could gain access to your digital records so long as it’s relevant to their case. Lee Rosen, a divorce lawyer in North Carolina, spoke with NPR about how he used to rely on private investigators to dig up dirt on opponents; now, he only need send a subpoena to gain access to text messages or other forms of digital correspondence.

What you can do to stop tracking?
There needs to be a change. Watching, tracking, and selling consumer information isn’t right. There’s a reason why we close the bathroom door when we use the toilet. You can close the door on company trackers. There are tools to help you protest while searching sites and stop data compilation. It begins by stopping use of Facebook and Google.

If you want to browse anonymously, start by downloading Tor. It’s an Internet browser you can download for free. It works by relaying your information through other networks inside and outside of the US. This means websites won’t be able to pinpoint where the original request came from, disguising you and your IP. As for search engines, DuckDuckGo is an excellent alternative to Google. It’s privacy policy is simple: We don’t collect or share personal information. There isn’t a profile stored on you and your information isn’t being sold. Simple as that. Feels nice, right?

Instead of using GChat or Facebook messenger for communications, use a service that allows end-user encryption. Pidgin or Adium have a button that allows users to enable OTR (off the record) chat. Anyone spying will be able to see that user A is talking to user B, but they won’t be able to decode the messages being sent.

What about online shopping? Well, you can go one of two ways with this: Start shopping at brick and mortar retailers with cash or use prepaid cards to make purchases. Prepaid credit cards require you to put in an address and name when you register them, but that’s just for AVS checks. You can enter in whatever address you want to associate with the card, just make sure you keep it handy. You’ll have to use that address when you’re typing in your billing information, but use a separate or real address for shipping. As for shipping, you can use a fake name and purchase a P.O. Box at your local post office to keep your address safe—no one said being anonymous was cheap or easy.

How far you want to go to keep your information safe is up to you. The easiest steps to take, though, start with downloading and using the Tor browser and DuckDuckGo for searches. After that you can begin to phase-out other products that track your habits and sell your information. Companies make billions of dollars a year selling information you give away using their services. You should have a right to your privacy.

To help you get started on your way toward more privacy, here are 20 mobile apps for privacy and anonymity.

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