Secrets for Sale: How Big Data Buys Your Identity

Fight back against big data and lockdown your own privacy.

Most people in today’s day and age have experienced it — you get a sudden craving or think about an old television show, quietly — silently — relishing in thoughts inside your own head, when suddenly an ad appears for that very thing you were visualizing — without ever putting that idea out into the world.

Many people think that technology is growing so intelligent that it’s beginning to read minds — it doesn’t even have to.

Companies like Amazon want to touch everything you buy — here’s how close they’re getting.

Your Personality for Sale

“Every interaction, every contact you have as a consumer with a company, every time you use a website, iPhone or social media … your data, your behavior is being recorded and automatically connected electronically,” said Nancy Deng, an information systems professor at California State University of Dominguez Hills.

“Companies like Amazon, of course, they have your transactional data but they may not have your personal preference or lifestyle data,” she added. “But there are some other people collecting those and they could try to put it together.”

Take a Bite Out of the Cookies

When you think of a cookie, you probably conjure ideas of something baked hot and fresh, not a tool to mine your personality click by click. In the tech world, cookies are little bits of software that follow you around the web, tracking your choices. In stores, loyalty cards and digital coupons scan an active log of what you buy — couple that with public records, and companies can piece together a pretty clear picture of who you are and what you enjoy.

“This is stuff that’s private and the data brokers are selling it and monetizing it without most people understanding what they’re doing,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. “They’d show you an ad that they think is tailored to you and you might kind of like that, but there is so much more that can be determined about you and can be used literally against you.”

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Learning Legalese

Each data-collecting website has to have a privacy policy that says with whom — and where — data is shared, but you’d need fluency in legalese to even make sense of most of them.

“That data is accumulating at a fast speed, that’s why we have this big data phenomenon,” said Deng. ” But how the companies are using or being able to analyze the gigantic amount of data is still not clear.”

There’s even the story of the teenage girl in Minneapolis that has made its rounds — Target sent the girl a mailer congratulating her on her pregnancy, based off the algorithm’s tracking of her shopping behavior. The kicker? The girl hadn’t yet told her father the news — but she was, in fact, expecting.

“[The data] could tell them that you really have an unhealthy diet and perhaps you would not be a good risk for health insurance,” Simpson said. “That’s the kind of thing that can be put together out of the information that’s gathered about you.”

When the Levee Breaks: Big Data Breaches

In 2017, Equifax’s personal data list was hacked. The breach exposed social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and driver’s license numbers of more than 143 million Americans. The sad truth is Equifax was just one of the dozens of data breaches in recent memory — each one hitting even more varied sectors of the population.

“The privacy expectations, rules and regulations are running behind where tech is operating,” said Simpson. “We’ve got to start playing catch up and hold the big tech companies accountable.”

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How to Fight Back

Even though it might sound like a futile fight, not all hope is lost — start taking control of your information and wiping your own slate clean.

As a first step, visit StopDataMining.me — a website that shows you how to opt out of over 50 data brokers. Big data isn’t going to slow down — but you can shrink the size of your own target by cleaning your browser’s cookies — and thinking twice about how quickly you share information about yourself.

Click here to keep reading about the worst data breaches in the last decade.