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The Risks of Being Tracked Online (Part 1)

Your online life is constantly being tracked. Whether you’re on your phone, your desktop, your mobile device, on a dating app, checking the weather, or asking Siri something—you need to know that some company, somewhere, is tracking your behavior.

But you have nothing to hide. Your browsing history is completely innocent. So you’re being tracked. What’s the big deal?

Whether or not you care about your online privacy, there are real risks involved and it’s not only for criminals or people with something to hide to worry about. Here are some of the risks and problems that can result from a lack of privacy.

Your personal details are out in the open

If you freely use a browser without any concern, you’re giving away a lot of your personal information to anyone wanting to collect it. Advertisers collect your info so they can serve you ads, social media companies track you as you browse your newsfeeds, internet service providers keep track of your browsing history and location, and data brokers and aggregators scour the internet for your data so they can compile profiles on you.

These profiles can look like online directories (such as intelius.com) or they can be more sophisticated and quite creepy.

Every click is tracked

Companies also compile more sophisticated profiles on people derived from millions of data points. These behavioral profiles essentially follow individuals online and can collect information as granular as knowing what website you visited, what you clicked on, and what you bought. Here’s how Cooladata, a data analytics company, markets itself:

“With Cooladata, you can see that the person who clicked on an ad is the same person who visited your website, read two pages of reviews, downloaded your game, played for 15 minutes, cleared level 2, opened your email, used your coupon, spent $25 on in-app purchases, and invited 12 friends to join your game.”

Do you want all your behavior tracked in this way?

Your data is easily bought and sold

There are thousands of companies like Intelius and Cooladata who profit in collecting and selling data.

On average, every website has nine trackers, meaning nine different companies are collecting your info, in some way, every time you visit a new website. These companies can process and sell your data to anyone.

That one click to that one website while you were eating lunch? It delivered your data to hundreds of companies. 

So what they do with that data?

They use your data to influence you

The marketing and advertising industry is largely the driver of all this tracking and data collection. It’s why companies like Google and Facebook are so valuable. The most common tracker across the entire internet is Google Analytics and Facebook makes nearly all its money via advertising.

Marketers and companies use the data provided by companies like Google, Facebook, as well as other data analytics companies to target you with personalized and more effective ads. The more data points they can use, the more successful the ad will be (in theory).

However, political and cause-based organizations also use the same tools to target people with the same precision. In these cases, their goal isn’t necessarily to get you to buy something. It might be to get you to vote for something that goes against your best interests, to make you believe in something that’s not true, or to make you share biased or outright false information. This is how disinformation campaigns and influenced elections are carried out.

You may end up paying for it

Dynamic pricing is the practice of changing the price of a good or product depending on the customer. When it comes to dynamic pricing online, all the data points that are constantly collected as you browse the internet can be used to change the price of a product as soon as you reach a company’s website.

Your data is also used by insurance companies, as detailed by this WSJ article, to set premium rates by using algorithms that look through social media posts in order to set rates. Depending on what they find, they can charge customers more.

Privacy loss is just business

Every scenario we covered here is completely normal for the tracking industry and it’s likely going to get worse. However, this just covers the practices that are legal and accepted. There are many ways malicious actors and organizations can take advantage of tracking and really devastate an individual’s life.

We’ll cover those scenarios in part 2.

Photo by Alejandro Mendoza on Unsplash

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