When You Are the Product

Posted: December 1, 2021

Understand your web presence and how you can keep your information secure and private

By Sheena Marrs

If you have ever had a conversation and were subsequently showered by the topic or related products in ads and your news feed, you are not alone.

You may have thought it was a coincidence or, worse, that you were imagining things. Think again.

You inadvertently offer details about yourself every time you access the internet on your smartphone, even when it is tucked away in your pocket. Our personal data—including private conversations, online posts and purchases—are collected, filtered and compiled by artificial intelligence bots. The internet has become a massive data collection tool used by marketers, agencies and sometimes hackers.

As prevalent as the internet is in our lives, most of us know little about how it works. Britannica describes the internet as a vast network that connects computers all around the world. Encyclopedias, like physical maps and stationery, have taken a backseat since its arrival.

In 1973, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency started a research program to figure out a way for two network systems to communicate. The technology that was developed and the model that was created gave birth to the internet. Its rapid transition to the commercial enterprise took societies by storm.

When the information superhighway was introduced to the civilian world, there was minimal regulatory oversight. There was little concern over how private companies could control a user’s online experience by taking little bits of our personal information and packaging it up to sell for profit. A few decades in, many people now wonder where their data goes and how it is used.

Some people are unconcerned with how their search content and personal information is collected and distributed, often stating they have nothing to hide. That seems to be fortified on platforms where data and views are out in the open—likes, dislikes, political views and other intimate details about users.

In 2009, Facebook morphed social interactions into a more “personal” experience by normalizing transparency. People began inviting the world into their homes and inner thoughts. People pre-millennium rarely used their real names or actual photos of themselves online. The internet erupted. No longer was it the norm for identities of users to be anonymous.

The most valuable network ever created has seeped into every aspect of our lives. At no time could that be truer than during the pandemic. The world marketplace and way of life shifted in some ways exclusively online. Smartphones and tablets have brought learning, telemedicine and shopping to the palm of our hands.

As you navigate the internet, the data generated becomes part of your digital footprint. That data, or your actions and transactions, are stored in cookies and often shared with third parties for profit. There is literally an app and website for everything to make life more convenient and accessible, but nothing is free.

Google and Facebook have developed sophisticated platforms that should make users leery. Because the amount of information gathered about individuals is so vast, compiling the data in any logical format is impossible with human power alone. Algorithms are used to collect and filter massive amounts of data.

Data mining can be used by marketers to understand a user’s personal bias or online patterns, which lead to targeted marketing. However, the information collected is often more invasive.

Some publicly available data may include age, sex, race, geographic location, profession, political affiliation, estimated income, friends and relatives, and networks you belong to.

Then there is the unstructured content of what can be found on social media—such as tweets, comments, status updates—which is mainly what businesses, firms and agencies look to collect, or mine. Profiles visible to the public are generally fair game for social media data mining.

With advances in technologies, such as machine learning, data mining will continue to get more creative and in-depth. Algorithms are used by Facebook to personalize a user’s experience, which includes using your online interests to tailor the advertisements you see on your feed. This valuable data attracts advertisers from nearly every industry to the platform to reach
their desired audiences. These advertisers can range from retailers to health care companies to decision-makers.

Website and app developers claim access to your phones’ features. Microphone, location, camera and storage are needed to personalize the online experience to offer more relevant content, show ads of interest, and help report any issues with the site or app. User data is collected when users engage products and services, such as browsing websites, mobile apps, shopping and games.

For most mobile apps to function, users must agree to allow developers access to their information, such as photos and messages. Few consumers think twice about the permissions granted when they agree to the terms and conditions.

Smartphones have infiltrated every aspect of our lives. The average American spends more than four hours a day on their device for personal use. Doing away with a smartphone or the internet would be nearly impossible for the average U.S. citizen. That is why consumers should be vigilant in protecting their privacy.

Online Privacy and Safety Tips
Fortunately, people do not need to choose between their privacy and convenience. There are several steps you can take to ensure your searches and confidential information remain secure and private.

• One of the easiest ways to prevent a hacker from accessing your information is to reset your smartphone by powering it off and on periodically.

• Double check the privacy and security settings when you download a new app. Review what you allow the developer to access through your device and be aware with whom your information will be shared. This extends from Google docs to Zoom, and beyond.

• Check apps to see if there is an option to opt out. This will stop data sharing with third parties for that site, mobile app or game, which may prevent you from receiving tailored digital ads collected through third-party tracking technologies.

• Be mindful of your posts on social media and online forums. Once information is published online, there is almost no way of scrubbing it. AI bots scan and collect new data from sites across the web, making it nearly impossible to completely delete data or posts once published.

• Think twice before taking a free online test or completing a Facebook survey. Surveys often ask questions that mirror the credentialing questions used to verify account information, such as the name of your favorite teacher or the city where you were born. A cumulative collection of this information that people voluntary put out on the web can create potential for identity theft.

Be aware of how your personal data is collected and shared. We are living in an age where virtually everything can be done with a smartphone. Groceries delivered to our doorsteps, medical appointments and business meetings across the country all can be accomplished from the comfort of our couches.

Protecting your information is time-consuming and requires self-restraint. When online, consider asking yourself if you would be comfortable with your family or co-workers seeing what you are viewing or saying. Unless you have a secure, encrypted virtual private network, know that every online search is traced to your device, and the data is stored and becomes part of your digital footprint.