5 Scary Things the Internet Knows About You
Updated: Sep 15, 2019
We fill out our social media profiles, search for the best deals, wear smartwatches, check the weather on our smartphones, and so much more. We put our devices in our pockets and continue with our day, but every bit of information on that device is recorded, stored, and analyzed. So, what does the Internet know about you and what can you do about it?
As a Certified Professional Webmaster and Web Designer, I’ve been working in the field of web and digital marketing for my entire career so far. A big part of my job is researching, implementing, and practicing ethical decision making as it relates to web development and sharing ethical strategies and solutions among my colleagues to provide the best digital experience for our users and to respect user privacy.
Looking back on the history of the Internet and how far it’s come and where it is today – it’s scares me. I work in this field — it terrifies me of how much the Internet knows about all of us and what possibly amoral ways it’s being collected, bought, and sold for.
At this point if you’re thinking to yourself, “This woman is crazy and paranoid and she’s telling us we shouldn’t use technology.” I want you to know that isn’t the case at all.
I’m an advocate for technology. It’s a field I love to work in and delve deep into.
That’s why I’m writing about what the Internet has morphed into today and a few things to keep in mind when you grab your phone after reading this to do a search.
Everything You Search and Visit
Websites and search engines can collect your data like how often you order pizza, who your closest friends are, and what political party you prefer.
As soon as you open your browser or search using Google or Bing, you are leaving digital breadcrumbs everywhere. From the links you click to where your mouse moves on your screen to how far along you scroll, that data is being collected, stored, and used for mostly market research.
Your browser reports its name, your computer’s system information, CPU or GPU models, display resolution, desktop or mobile, and current battery level on mobile devices.
From a start-up in 1995 to a multi-billion dollar company that has it’s own universal phrase of “Just Google It,” and they pretty much track it all.
Google stores every letter you type and even predicts what you may want to type. If you’ve thought about hitting enter but changed your mind, it thinks it knows what you’ve wanted to search for.
Google Chrome tracks you without using a search engine. Google’s search engine is built in. So, what about Firefox? Well, when you enter a website, Firefox first checks to see whether or not that site is on Google’s blacklist, an ever-changing list of websites that Google bots identified as dangerous. Firefox also makes Google it’s default search engine. Sneaky like a fox.
Google owns Youtube. When you want to watch an educational video on science experiments and end up watching Vine compilations and pimple-popping videos for hours until you’ve had “enough Internet for the day”, Google knows that about you.
Where Your Cat Lives…and You
Google and Apple
I don’t mean to keep picking on Google but c’mon. It stores the location history of every place you’ve visited or entered in for directions. It has a “Timeline” feature to review every place you’ve been. Even with location settings turned off, Google takes a snapshot when you open its Maps app.
Daily weather updates on Android devices pinpoint where you are, using Google. iPhone users aren’t entirely safe from this feature either. Certain searches that have nothing to do with your location like “sports cars” for example, are matched to where you are and what you’re looking for.
Snapchat filters are fun. They let users express how they feel, what time it is, how fast they are going, and where they are.
On Snap Maps, anyone can see where you’re located if you are publicly listed, unless you turn on Ghost Mode. Remember, sharing a story to Our Story allows anyone to view, regardless of your sharing settings. Check you settings, kids!
Even though these apps and services don’t exactly know who you are by location, it can be tied and possible to combine your location with your other data to create a fuller profile of who you are.
Everything You Say
Your Personal Concierge: Google Home and Alexa
Only when I ask them to listen, right?
Well, yes. It listens to you when you say the phrase “Okay, Google” or “Alexa.” However, voice assistants use audio pre-recording in order to have a perked ear for when your command. If these voice assistants didn’t have this feature, they would need activation buttons.
Google provides every request their users asked for at myactivity.google.com. If you’ve never visited MyActivity before, you’d be surprised at all of the information Google has on you if you have an account.
Direct control and privacy over these devices is obtained by muting the device and using the manual ‘push-to-talk’ feature on a remote or phone. However, this pretty much renders the device useless for what it was designed for.
Siri: Go ahead, I’m listening.
Just like Google Home and Alexa, voice activation phrases are needed for these assistants to work. If you prefer not to use these concierge services, turn off the voice activation in your settings.
So, you aren’t being listened to by real people. However, companies can apply algorithms to look for patterns in your behavior and interests, such as shopping habits.
You Shopping and Money Habits
You probably could’ve guessed a few reasons why all of this tracking is happening. A very large reason is that we are customers and companies want us to buy their product.
Where you shop and what you buy may be used against you by your credit card company. Some companies may be using the data to lower your credit limit or increase your interest rates. However, Congress is looking into the extent of which credit issuers have used this information. Go Congress.
Amazon and Google track what you search for and purchase. Shocker. Did you ever search for a product on Amazon or Google, such as a Samsung LED TV, and the next time you open your browser, you see banner ads, Facebook ads, and sidebar ads for TVs? This is the bulk of why companies collect your data; to sell to you.
Is it all bad? No. It’s a form of marketing, just like traditional radio and television, but companies find major success in advertising through digital and it’s how many survive. You can’t blame them entirely. Who drives to every department store to find what they need anymore? The consumer, us, wants things fast. We search for the best deal and how we can get it quickly and easily. These companies just reflect consumer behavior to stay in business. If Amazon offers fast, free shipping and consumers become accustomed to that service, then other companies are somewhat expected to do the same.
You – Or the Internet’s Profile of You
Age: If you’ve ever entered your birthday on Facebook or any other app or website, it places you into a demographic target.
Gender: Again, If Facebook or any other social media knows your gender, that’s tracked and you are bucketed into a target group.
Relationships: Same goes for your relationship. Even your friends lists and what your friends purchase is collected and analyzed to determine what you may purchase next.
Interests: Of course, any interests you have. If you have a Tumblr account and checked off what you like to show in your feed or shared videos on other social media, typing in certain keywords to Google, that is all compiled, creating a profile of you.
What You Look Like: Facial recognition is used as a password on computers, Xbox one, smartphones, and others. Facebook’s facial recognition algorithm detects you in photos you weren’t even tagged in. It was created with the intention to notify users of photos they didn’t know they were in. However, Facebook automatically unleashed the feature on its users without having them opt in to use it. A big no-no in the world of user experience (UX).
Why? The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Ethically speaking, user behavior tracking and geo-targeting helps websites tailor online experiences to what you like with customization and personalization features that are proven to increase engagement and decision-making when buying products or services and finding exactly what you need as quickly as it can, predicting from previous searches.
Have you ever been searching for just the right microwave that would suit your needs?You log in to Facebook and and see an ad for the perfectly priced microwave on your screen when sifting through Facebook.
WALAH! You click. You add to a cart. You enter your purchasing information. You receive the product in a 2 days. Fast, easy, and convenient service without ever stepping foot in a store. Who doesn’t want that?
Companies buy and sell this data to create psycho-graphic profiles of you in order to predict what you will buy next and what you want to see in order to get you to purchase.
This can be helpful. It can be extremely creepy as many of us experienced.
Back in the days of the traditional advertising only, there was never concrete evidence of who heard a company’s radio commercial, watched their TV ad, or saw their billboard. Marketers guessed based off of demographic information and survey.
Today, they know everything: where you clicked, where website came from, how long you saw the ad, when you skipped passed it, what food you like from previous searches, the kinds of cars you searched for, what country you’re in…woah. Marketers can now bucket customers pretty precisely, instead of guessing. Why wouldn’t they want that? Just something to think about.
If you thought The Bad was creepy, here’s where it get ugly. The U.S. lacks net neutrality. Your Internet Service Provider (ISP), like Xfinity/Comcast, can sell your browsing history to advertisers, telling them exactly what you’re interested in. So now, your data can not only be collected and analyzed, but bought.
How Do Browsers and Devices Do This?
Cookies – Not the Delicious Kind
Cookies are logged data that acts as little markers by your browser to remember information, such as a username and password. Cookies remember website visits, stored items in your online shopping basket, and the city you’ve selected to check the weather a few days ago.
Clickclikclick.click is a clever little website that shows just how much a browser stores about your behavior online, starting with your IP address.
An IP (Internet Protocol) address is a string of numbers which identifies a networked device, like how a house has a street address. Go ahead, ask Google what your IP address is.
What the World Is Doing About It
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
In the European Union, GDPR standardizes data protection and imposes strict rules on controlling and processing personal data. If a company in the United States offers products or services to any countries in the European Union, the laws apply to them as well. There are fines for non-compliance.
Companies must be transparent about how user data is collected and processed and allows users to opt out.
Consumer Data Privacy Policies in the U.S.
California signed a data privacy legislation to give consumers more control over data collection like GDPR, but the rules are not as strict.
The US is currently working to develop consumer data privacy policies.
What Can You Do About It
Find the information your browser is sending using WebkayGoogle My ActivityCheck your Google Ad Settings and Personalization Check your Amazon Ad PreferencesUse a private search engine like DuckDuckGoInstall Ad Blocker extensions on your browsers.
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
Like all things in tech, power and responsibility need to balance. Data collection can be used for positive and ethical purposes to improve user experience. We all know that power can be abused like what we’ve seen with news stories of big data scandals. It’s important for all of us as users of Internet to be conscious of the data we reveal on social media, the websites that we visit, and what we search for if we don’t use privacy tools. Advocate for data protection. After all, it’s you that’s out there.