5 Ways Your Information Is Being Exploited Every Day
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Are you privacy-conscious? How troubled are you by corporate invasions of privacy?

You may not be too worried about having your rights infringed. You might be very concerned by the fact you’re being tracked. It actually doesn’t matter too much, because a lot of the things we take for granted can also be used against us.

Here’s how you’re being exploited right now.

1. Social Media Tracking

Facebook boasts some 1.9 billion users, of which 1.28 billion use it every single day. Twitter pales in comparison, and yet still has a considerable 328 million monthly users. Instagram has swiftly overtaken the microblogging platform with some 700 million users.

social media facebook smartphone
Image Credit: Hamza Butt via Flickr

These social media networks gather huge amounts of information about you Facebook Privacy: 25 Things The Social Network Knows About You Facebook Privacy: 25 Things The Social Network Knows About You Facebook knows a surprising amount about us – information we willingly volunteer. From that information you can be slotted into a demographic, your "likes" recorded and relationships monitored. Here are 25 things Facebook knows about... Read More . Facebook, once more, is a giant in this respect: it eats up as much data as it can, including Personally Identifiable Information (PII) Here's How Much Your Identity Could Be Worth on the Dark Web Here's How Much Your Identity Could Be Worth on the Dark Web It's uncomfortable to think of yourself as a commodity, but all of your personal details, from name and address to bank account details, are worth something to online criminals. How much are you worth? Read More , your interests (courtesy of what you “like” and share), and the content of any messages you leave or that are left on your profile.

Heck, Facebook even knows what you look like.

Some might take a moral high ground and think they’re safe because they’re not on Facebook, but that doesn’t matter It Doesn't Matter If You're Not On Facebook: They're Still Tracking You It Doesn't Matter If You're Not On Facebook: They're Still Tracking You A new report claims the Facebook is tracking people without their permission. It doesn't matter if you don't use social networking service: they're still watching you. What can you do about it? Read More . Thanks to Facebook.com domains — fan sites, for instance — and social media plugins installed on millions of popular sites, you’ve got a shadow profile Facebook Shadow Profiles: You Probably Have One Too [Weekly Facebook Tips] Facebook Shadow Profiles: You Probably Have One Too [Weekly Facebook Tips] You think you're not on Facebook? Think again. Facebook no doubt has a shadow profile made just for you. You may recall recently that Facebook found a bug exposing personal details of 6 million user... Read More (i.e. a database of information on people who aren’t using the platform).

Why? Because these media services are free, meaning you are what’s being sold. Your information is worth a great deal of revenue. Advertisements can be targeted Why Am I Seeing This Ad? How Social Media Ads Target You Why Am I Seeing This Ad? How Social Media Ads Target You Every social media site out there shows us ads. But sometimes, those ads can get very specific towards you, often showing you ads that seem creepy and stalkerish. How do they do that? Read More specifically at you, so what’s promoted can be focused on your location, your hobbies, and what times you’re most active online.

2. Your Political Leanings

You have an absolute right to keep your voting history secret. No one should be able to see which way you swing on any given election and which allegiance is closest to your heart.

But some break cover and fly the flag. Others don’t necessarily, but from various information submitted, again on social media, your political persuasion can be inferred Political Campaigns Are Tracking You on Facebook, Here's Why Political Campaigns Are Tracking You on Facebook, Here's Why You know by now that companies and government use social media to track you. But there's another group that's watching, analyzing, and capitalizing on every move you make on Facebook: political campaigners. Read More .

This leaves you open to a great deal of propaganda How Social Media Is The Newest Military Battleground How Social Media Is The Newest Military Battleground Britain has revived the 77th Brigade, notorious for its use of unorthodox strategies during WW2, in order to gather intelligence, spread propaganda and control overarching narratives on Facebook and Twitter. Could they be watching you? Read More : digital marketing has never been so important, meaning you’re bound to be bombarded with politically-charged messages. The same private information used by advertisers can also passed onto parties. But this isn’t about benefiting from your money — it’s about swaying your agendas.

Campaigns, at least in the U.S., typically begin around two years before an election, so there’s plenty of time to exploit what you’re doing in your free time Sick of Politics? 3 Powerful Ways to Clean Up Facebook Sick of Politics? 3 Powerful Ways to Clean Up Facebook You're probably using Facebook wrong. But don't feel bad — so is practically everyone else. An unconfigured Facebook page can be desperately annoying — but there are ways to clean it up. Read More (checking Twitter, for instance) for political gain.

digital political ad spending chart
Image Credit: Borrell

The scariest thing is, you might not realize it’s happening because not all these campaigns are overt. It was revealed by Facebook representatives that “geographically-targeted” ad sales totalling $100,000 beginning in summer 2015 were traced back to a Russian “troll farm.” Some of these apparently named American candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (though Facebook refused to confirm which was portrayed as the better option).

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, wrote that relatively few named a candidate or even the election in general:

“Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

3. Loyalty Cards

Unlike being used as political pawns, with this example of exploitation, you actually get something in return.

The popularity of loyalty card schemes 5 Tools To Help You Make The Most Of Your Rewards Accounts 5 Tools To Help You Make The Most Of Your Rewards Accounts Many companies offer rewards programs — not just airlines. It can be difficult to keep track of them all. Here are five tips that will help you make the most of your rewards accounts. Read More has grown recently, partly due to their expansion into digital platforms. You know the deal: if you shop at a certain store regularly, they reward you with bargains. You might get a free coffee after having so many hot drinks from an establishment, or get money off every few weeks.

How does this benefit a store? The first clue is in the title: loyalty. Obvious, right? Essentially, they’re saying, “if you buy from us regularly enough, we’ll give you special offers and free stuff.” Lovely.

Except these deals are often personalized. So they further benefit from storing some details How Loyalty Card Apps Compromise Your Privacy How Loyalty Card Apps Compromise Your Privacy Loyalty cards are everywhere. You give businesses you regularly use your personal information, and they give you discounts, bonuses, or even freebies. But what are you really trading for that free cup of coffee? Read More , notably shopping habits — although apps might also collect data on your device’s history, contacts, and Wi-Fi connections.

handful of used loyalty cards
Image Credit: Nick Webb via Flickr

Let’s say you’re purchasing lots of nappies from a supermarket. The chances are, you’ve got a new baby in the family. Around Christmastime, for example, the shop may start promoting children’s toys more heavily than before.

It’s a catch-22. You like saving cash, but in order to do so, you have to sacrifice some level of privacy.

You should always check privacy policies before signing up for anything, but many loyalty schemes refuse to sell your information on, for fear of breaching data protection laws. Still, the wealth of details on file about customers can make them a big target for hackers Should You Dump Your Loyalty Cards After the Starbucks Hack? Should You Dump Your Loyalty Cards After the Starbucks Hack? As criminals look for increasingly sneaky ways to grab data and get their hands on anything with value, loyalty cards and gift cards are in danger of becoming the latest proxy in the ongoing war. Read More .

4. In-Store Location

Stores use a similar tactic when it comes to coupon services How To Save Money By Couponing Online How To Save Money By Couponing Online While technology sometimes offers us entirely new options, it more commonly refines everyday life. Couponing is one example. People have been saving money with coupons for decades, but the proliferation of mobile Internet offers new... Read More . They offer you discounts on specific products, hoping that you’ll be tempted to visit a store then browse.

The same thing has been going on for ages, in the form of “loss leaders.” This is typically why essential goods, like bread and milk, are located at the back of a shop. As you search for what you came in for, you’ll likely see something else you want to buy.

people shopping in a mall
Image Credit: Rene Schwietzke via Flickr

Having in-store Wi-Fi (which some connect to in order to save money and cell data) enables many high-street shops to track customers. You don’t even have to connect to it: your smartphone consistently sends out requests to find signals. These are given off by beacons around a shop and tracking how far between beacons those requests are made can give an estimated location.

That means you might consider buying something, wander off, then come back — by which time, a voucher app has alerted you that there’s money off that particular product. It gives you that final push into purchasing Automatic Coupon Finders - Do They Really Help You Save Money? Automatic Coupon Finders - Do They Really Help You Save Money? Like many good things in life, coupons and promo codes are elusive. Saving money is never an easy thing, after all, and when you’re trying to find valid codes for something specific, you usually end... Read More .

Okay, so not everyone uses voucher apps, but more than 90 percent of American consumers do.

Still, even if you don’t use those, that doesn’t mean malls can’t exploit you How Shops Track You Using Your Smartphone How Shops Track You Using Your Smartphone How would you feel if a retail tracked your smartphone as you browsed their store? Would it be easier to palate if they offered you some discounts while breaching your privacy? Read More . By using the same methods, Wi-Fi Analytics can see how customers interact with the store: what routes they take, which sections are most popular, and how long they stay. This information can all be used to manipulate us.

That’s without even mentioning CCTV.

5. Your Smartphone Battery

Your smartphone can act as a marker as to your location, but also how dire your situation might be.

As ridiculous as it sounds, apps can use your cell’s battery against you. Or, from another point of view, they can use it to help you out.

It started out altruistically enough: certain apps can check how much charge you’ve got, so if you’re on low power, they could limit the amount of elements used that are a particular strain on your battery Avoid These iPhone Apps for Better Battery Life Avoid These iPhone Apps for Better Battery Life Killing background apps won't save your battery — in some cases you'll have to completely avoid an app in order to stop it from draining your smartphone's energy. Read More . It’s one use for Low Power Mode too. But some firms can further utilize this information to determine how desperate you are for their service.

Most famously, it’s a tactic reportedly used by Uber. We’re so attached to our smartphones that we feel a need to have access to this form of communications all the time. It’s for emergencies, right? That means that, if your phone drops below 20 percent, you might worry about getting home. According to reports Three Surprising Ways Your Smartphone Can Be Used to Spy On You Three Surprising Ways Your Smartphone Can Be Used to Spy On You Everybody knows that carrying a smartphone in your pocket is like keeping a personal tracker on you at all times. We sacrifice a lot for convenience. Here's how your phone spies on you. Read More , you’re more likely to accept so-called “surge prices” (increased fares for travel, supposedly at busier times) when your battery is running low.

It’s also a handy indicator that you’ve been away from home for a time as most folk charge their devices before they leave.

What Can You Do?

This is about damage limitation, because it’s very unlikely you’re going to abandon the internet completely. That’s arguably the only way you’ll stop social networks tracking you entirely.

Still, you can reduce the number of details you share on services like Facebook and Instagram. Do you really need to “check in” at every opportunity? Do you need to “like” that page? Should you really share that photo and tag all the people you’re with?

Encryption also helps. Try a virtual private network (VPN) The Best VPN Services The Best VPN Services We've compiled a list of what we consider to be the best Virtual Private Network (VPN) service providers, grouped by premium, free, and torrent-friendly. Read More , which adds a solid layer of security and anonymity to what you’re doing outside social media infrastructure.

This should also cut down the likelihood of your political persuasion being inferred, but you can also attempt to block all related content from your feed 5 Tips to Block Politics From Your Facebook Timeline 5 Tips to Block Politics From Your Facebook Timeline But every four years in the United States, the election comes along to completely and totally transform Facebook into a virtual nightmare. Here's how to block political posts on Facebook. Read More .

As for loyalty cards, the ball is naturally in your court. You have to decide whether it’s worthwhile giving up some privacy so you can enjoy bargains. The majority of people find this is an acceptable trade-off Why Have Americans Given Up On Privacy? Why Have Americans Given Up On Privacy? A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication concluded Americans are resigned to giving up data. Why is this, and does it affect more than just Americans? Read More .

privacy keyboard
Image Credit: g4ll4is via Flickr

What can you do about the signals your smartphone sends off? It’s impractical to keep it turned off, but you could disable Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. Delete any reward schemes that you don’t use very often, and assess whether any actually benefit you.

When it comes to apps learning when your battery power is low, the answer is obvious: keep it charged up as much as possible. Aim for at least 80 percent when you walk out the door each morning.

What Should You Do?

This is something else entirely. What you can do, and what you should do depends completely on how you feel about your privacy.

Everyone will be different. To some, the money saved by being less privacy-conscious outweighs the sacrifice of personal details. Others will go to extreme measures to avoid surveillance.

How do you feel? Is such exploitation ever necessary? Or should we, as a society, value our private information more than we currently do?

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  1. Alan Trinder
    September 25, 2017 at 1:18 am

    Mmm, so many things suggesting you must have a VPN i wonder what your commision is?
    But seriously, is my information really being exploited?
    Take my political leanings, I do not hide these, I openly post them.
    Targeted ads, the targeting is so poor it just makes me think how bad is that. You buy a camera and suddenly all the advertisers target you because if you have one camera you must want another straight away.
    What I do agree with you on is the use and storage of personal data and I dont just mean by Facebook, look at the Equifax breach. I didnt give Equifax permission to hold my data let alone use it. If they do so why have governments made them liable for any breach or misinformation that arises because of its use and I do mean financially liable? Governments and the law makers should they be concerned about information being exploited or are they apart of it?

  2. dragonmouth
    September 20, 2017 at 1:08 pm

    Only 5 ways?!

    "1. Social Media Tracking"
    If we provide information to Facebook and other social media, we implicitly give them permission to collect our data. So we have nobody but ourselves to blame for loss of privacy. However, I do not have any kind of a social media account and yet Facebook has reams of data on me. Who gave them permission to covertly gather that data?

    "3. Loyalty Cards"
    Casinos have had loyalty programs for decades. They are called 'comps'. Even small-potatoes gamblers get them if they gamble regularly.

    "4. In-Store Location"
    What about all the 'security' cameras that are popping up all over the place? Tracking through facial recognition.

    "What Can You Do?"
    As long as the US (or any other) government feels that it can maintain better control over the populace by surveilling then in any way possible, there is nothing I or anybody can realistically do.

  3. Pete
    September 20, 2017 at 12:31 am

    Encryption is essential these days. Unfortunately, not every website offers https. ExpressVPN automatically encrypts and reroutes all your web traffic. If anyone's looking for a good VPN, I suggest you start there.

    • dragonmouth
      September 20, 2017 at 12:38 pm

      MakeUseOf DOES NOT offer https in spite of all their articles on privacy and security. Curious.

      In the past few days MUO has had articles on how VPNs are not really as safe and private as users think.

  4. Howard A Pearce
    September 19, 2017 at 2:12 pm

    What information people choose to release to others is their choice - whether they go outside and shout it or shout it on the internet is irrelevant (unless their is a contract with the person one is releasing the information to).

    Once we allow the state to decide what public information is "private" and what is public then we may as well give up out right to privacy and let the "authoritarians" (polite word) determine our privacy for us.

    • dragonmouth
      September 20, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      "What information people choose to release to others is their choice "
      Quite right. However, what about the information collected about us WITHOUT our permission, when we WERE NOT given a choice?! Or does our use of electronic forms of communication automatically mean we consent to data being gathered about us?

      • Howard A Pearce
        September 21, 2017 at 12:56 pm

        If you go outside and shout your social security number , do you think people must ask your permission for your brain to process this ?

        Whom you release information to is your choice. There is no responsibility on others to ask you permission to use information that you chose to release to begin with

        • dragonmouth
          September 21, 2017 at 6:13 pm

          You missed the point. I'll make it simple: Is your action of using the US Postal Service to deliver your mail, an implicit permission for the USPS to store any data that they find in your mail? Because that is pretty much what Facebook, Google, et al are doing. I do not have any social media accounts and yet both Facebook and Google have reams of personal data. I certainly neither gave them that data nor did I give them permission, either implied or expressed, to collect that data.

      • Howard A Pearce
        September 22, 2017 at 10:40 am

        Again, whom you decide to realease information to is your decusion

        Now as for the post office, you are talking about a coercive monopoly on 1st class mail know as the U.S. mail that I would never approve of but which people are almost forced to use because it is coercive monopoly
        Under this situation for now, the answer is the same although therir are other services that you may use like fedreal express