The Privacy Lie (that you are telling yourself)

privacyBy now, I’m sure that you KNOW that you are being tracked online in some way. I’m sure that you understand deep down that that there are these shadowy figures that know things about you and what you look at online and what you buy. I’m equally sure that you don’t know the full picture, or how it could be used to your detriment.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but…

Privacy, particularly online, is a comfortable lie that we tell ourselves. It is bolstered by the common belief that there are laws in place that somehow protect us.

Allow me to ask you a few questions that may well change your mind about what you believe that you know is really happening…

Do you believe that by law a supermarket must obtain your permission before selling information about your food purchases to another company?

Do you believe that a pharmacy must legally get your permission to sell information about the over-the-counter drugs you purchase?

Do you believe that a website having a “Privacy Policy” means that they will not share information about you with other websites and companies without your permission?

Do you believe it is illegal for an online store to charge you and another person different prices for exactly the same thing at exactly the same time of day?

Do you believe it is illegal for a physical store to charge you and another person different prices for exactly the same thing at exactly the same time of day?

Do you believe that a site like Expedia or Orbitz or Travelocity is legally required to include the “lowest” price for whatever it is that you search?

The fact is that NONE OF THESE are true. There are no laws to protect you IN ANY WAY from any of these things. I’m sure you are wondering how this could be…

Well, the answer to that question is rather simple: EULAs (End-User License Agreements). Several studies have shown that were a “typical” Internet user to read every Privacy Policy and EULA that he or she encounters in a year online that they would spend 25 full days of the year doing nothing but reading!  Yes, 25 full days, or 600 hours, or little more than an hour and a half per day. Why is this? Because nearly every website and program and app that you use has one, and they are insanely long for a reason: so that you won’t take the time to read them, let alone to fully understand all the implications.

For example…

A typical retail chain’s policy for use of their “loyalty card” or “online coupons” or even just their website often includes such statements like:

  • buys information from 3rd-party firms to add to data about individual customers;
  • uses cookies to follow behaviors on sites AND in emails to infer interests;
  • allows “related-sites” and “advertising networks” that it works with to collect data about individuals coming to the site or using the app;
  • tracks location information from mobile device use;
  • collects and analyses comments from product reviews, questions, or “other information” on its website, app, or social-network pages;
  • allows 3rd-party buttons like those from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, FourSquare, etc. to collect information from their site and/ or “place trackers to collect data.”

And they can do this because they “told” you that they might… in the Agreement or Policy… that you never read… and never will read.

So… You ARE being tracked, and your data MIGHT be used, but they can’t really tell that much about you personally, right?  Wrong.  Let me simplify a rather complex subject for you so that you fully understand.

Let’s say you go to a local coffee shop to use their “free” wifi. You purchase your usual beverage using their “loyalty” card. (Because why wouldn’t you? You get discounts and a free drink on your birthday.) You even take the time to read the Agreement that pops up before you start using the wifi ( you didn’t just tap “Agree” like usual). It even says that they don’t collect personal data. So far so good, right? Wrong… The moment you used that card that gave you a discount you set into motion a series of electronic events that have followed you each time you have used it.

We are all creatures of habit, and that is precisely the thing that allows us to be very easily followed. While there were 6 other people in that coffee shop at the same time as you, each using the same wifi that “doesn’t collect personal data,” there is only one that has been in that coffee shop on Tuesday of last week, and Friday three weeks before that looked at Facebook and Forbes and the New York Times and Twitter, in that order. There is only one that also used an app to look at luggage. There is only one who looked up the prices of air travel to California. And there is only one who got emails over the next few days advertising discount travel sites and whose Facebook page magically had advertisements for name brand discount luggage.

But that’s great, right? Because it is like the web is supposed to work, giving you what you want when you want it, right? Wrong again. This is where the hidden part of the algorithms come into play…

You are white, middle class, buy organic when available, drive a luxury automobile, change your oil frequently, take few risks, vacation within 150 miles of your home, purchase name brand goods, prefer leather, eat out a moderately priced restaurants 3 times per month, check 4 websites before you buy electronics, stay at 3-star hotels that are given reviews that call them “undervalued”… the list goes on. Each website, loyalty card, purchase, and online habit that you have pigeon-holes you into a very specific demographic that guarantees that the next time you go to a travel site and “log in,” you will not see the cheapest price for the flight you WILL take, you will not see the cheapest price for the hotel you WILL stay in. There is a small premium added, because you WILL pay $5 more because your demographic says you will, and you ALWAYS do because you don’t know that you are.

So… How on earth do you avoid this? Well, you don’t, at least not completely. We have already given so much of our private lives away to marketing masters that some is now just a fact of life. I’m not being defeatist here, just stating a truth. 

But… there are some ways to mitigate it.

  • Delete your history and cookies from websites often.

  • Turn off “tracking” in your browser preferences (usually found under “Privacy” or “Security”).

  • Create a new, temporary email address, and then a new Account using that address before you make travel arrangements or book a hotel.

  • Create a new, temporary email address, and then a new Account using that address before you make a large online purchase.

  • Pay in cash, and without using a loyalty card when you make a purchase that you wouldn’t want everyone to know about.

  • Divide your life.  Use one email address for Facebook, another for Gmail, another for news sites, another for purchasing, another for loyalty cards. 

  • Opt out of giving ALL your information when you do sign up for a service. Only fill out the “required” information.

  • Refuse to use services that DO require extensive information about you.

All in all, the Internet is a wonderful thing that has allowed society to come together as never before. But… it is also a place that has taken what was once considered sacred, personal privacy, and made it into a comfortable myth that we somehow believe, despite all evidence to the contrary. And, this data IS being used to your detriment more often than you think.

Half the battle is understanding how this has been lost; the rest is overcoming our own habits and doing all we can to take it back.

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