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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.
These social media networks gather huge amounts of information about you. Facebook, once more, is a giant in this respect: it eats up as much data as it can, including Personally Identifiable Information (PII), 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. 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 (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 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.
This leaves you open to a great deal of propaganda: 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 (checking Twitter, for instance) for political gain.
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 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, notably shopping habits — although apps might also collect data on your device’s history, contacts, and Wi-Fi connections.
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.
4. In-Store Location
Stores use a similar tactic when it comes to coupon services. 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.
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.
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. 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. 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, 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), 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.
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.
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?