THEY’RE SELLING YOUR SECRETS
In 2012, a teenage girl received a coupon in the mail from Target for baby products. Her father, being rather upset about this, called his local Target manager to complain. Two weeks later the girl admitted that she was pregnant, but hadn't told anyone. How did Target know? As it turns out, the girl had been browsing the Target website for various items which resulted in a high "pregnancy score" within their statistics application. They used the data from her web browsing, matched it to her Father's email account on file, and sent a coupon to her home. This was of course, perfectly legal and has now become an important strategy in Target's profiling of its customers.
When asked about this incident, Andrew Pole, Target's marketing statistician remarked, “Just wait. We’ll be sending you coupons for things you want before you even know you want them.”
This is one the most popular tactics employed by businesses today in an effort to aggregate customer information and sell more products. Does this bother you? It should, and it's only gotten worse...
Every time you browse the Internet your personal information is being gathered, stored, aggregated and sold off to the highest bidder. Some of these practices are illegal, what is called "Phishing." But most of the time it's perfectly legal because you've unknowingly agreed to it. Nearly every commercial website has a "terms of service" that you agree to when browsing their pages. For the most part, these terms allow them to gather whatever information they can about you and do whatever they want with it.
Let’s see how it the reaping of your data is systematized…
- When you visit a website, especially large commercial sites, they allow, even encourage, other data collectors to “mine” your information as you browse. They collect not only the pages and information you view, but all of the sites you’ve visited in the past. It’s not uncommon for 25-30 different content aggregators to grab your information as you browse a webpage. They know what you look at, what you buy, the ads you click, and can quickly determine the probability of products and services you may want based on the profile they’re actively building about you.
- Your personal data is aggregated and key identifiers are determined. Every computer (smart phone, tablets, etc.) that connects to the Internet has a MAC address, which is a unique way of identifying your device out of the millions of devices in the world. Once multiple organizations have your MAC address, they can build a profile about you by connecting the dots from other sources. Ultimately, one or two companies end up with most of the information and know a lot more about you than they should. They see what you do online, what you buy, your religious beliefs, and searches about health issues. And in case you didn't know, what you post on Facebook is fair game. Facebook and their partners actively leverage your information to target their advertising partners at you. They see it all.
- Once a profile is mature, the companies who have your information sell it to the highest bidders so that they can target ad sales, direct marketing, phone sales, and even perhaps help out the government, should they take issue with you for any reason. These companies are known as Data Brokers and it’s a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Watch a greatpiece by 60 Minutes on this topic.
Here’s the hard reality, the days of anonymity are gone. If you use the Internet, your data is out there forevermore. And, the more personal information you share on social networks, the greater the opportunities are for those who make a living selling your data.
So what’s a person to do?
- Browse cautiously. Don’t visit questionable websites. If there’s windows popping up and dancing advertisements, this means run away.
- Don’t enter your personal information and/or credit card number unless the site is secure (you should see a green key in the browser bar.)
- Use a non-work email for subscribing to newsfeeds and blogs. Go to Gmail and get a free email account. Use that for when you don’t mind your information gathered.
- Don’t get Phished. Phishing is a common practice used by those who want to exploit your data. This typically involves a fake email from a government agency or a friend with a strange request to fill something out or click a button. Click cautiously.
- Check your credit history regularly. There are now a number of sites that allow you to check your credit and see if there’s any strange activity. This is a good first line of defense.
The Internet was never designed to be private. The more you use it, the more you’re engaging in activities that prove valuable to marketers and data aggregators. The only secure computer is the one that’s off. So, be wise, be cautious and stay safe.