Here are some mildly terrifying things I learned when I recently did an online privacy checkup: Google was sharing my creditworthiness with third parties. If you want Target to stop sharing your information with marketers, you have to call them. And, my favorite: If you would like Hearst, the publishing giant, to stop sharing your physical mailing address with third parties, you have to mail a physical letter with your request to the company’s lawyers.
Cool cool cool.
“As consumers, we all have ‘secret scores’: hidden ratings that determine how long each of us waits on hold when calling a business, whether we can return items at a store, and what type of service we receive,” Ms. Hill wrote. “A low score sends you to the back of the queue; high scores get you elite treatment.” (If you’re interested, you can request your own secret dossier by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, though the company is backed up because of the “recent press coverage.” It took them two weeks to respond to my request.)
Surprised? We were, too
Like many people, I was a little stunned at the intimate level of data that was being collected. Ms. Hill was, too.
“I know that we are tracked in surprising ways, and have reported on those surprising ways extensively, but even I was shocked to get a 400-page file on myself back from a company I’d never heard of,” she told me. “It was bizarre to see what I had ordered from an Indian restaurant three years ago in the report and disturbing to find all the private Airbnb messages that I had sent to hosts. I didn’t think any company beyond Airbnb would have that data.”
It’s no secret that we’re being tracked everywhere online. We all know this; every one of us has a story about an alarmingly specific ad appearing on Facebook, or a directly targeted Amazon promo following us around the internet. But as internet-connect devices become more prevalent in our everyday lives — think smart TVs, smart speakers and smart refrigerators, for example — and as our reliance on smartphones increases, we’re just creating so much more data than we used to, said Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights organization that advocates for consumer online privacy.
“There are just more streams of data out there to be aggregated and tied to profiles and sold,” Mr. Cyphers said. “Because people don’t realize that their car is collecting data about their location and sending it off to some server somewhere, they’re less likely to think about that, and companies are less likely to be held accountable for that kind of thing.”
He added: “Information is being shared completely haphazardly, and there’s no accountability at any stage, especially in America.”
Who cares? I have nothing to hide
We’ve all heard that one before.
“The only people I’ve heard say, ‘Who cares?’ are people who don’t understand the scope of the problem,” Mr. Cyphers said.
“A lot of the tracking systems out there make it easier for law enforcement to gather data without warrants,” he said. “A lot of trackers sell data directly to law enforcement and to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. I think the bottom line is that it’s creepy at best. It enables manipulative advertising and political messaging in ways that make it a lot easier for the messengers to be unaccountable. It enables discriminatory advertising without a lot of accountability, and in the worst cases it can put real people in real danger.”
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Still, there are signs that things could be improving, if slowly. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, Mr. Cyphers said, “dredged up the worst parts of the industry into the press and popular knowledge,” which in some ways forced companies and lawmakers to acknowledge the issue. Sweeping changes, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act and Europe’s GDPR, have led the way in giving internet users new rights and protections, and Mr. Cyphers said that “popular awareness and the techlash has opened up room for real regulation.”
But we’re a long way from a privacy utopia.
“As long as you can make a buck and what you’re doing isn’t illegal,” Mr. Cyphers said, “someone’s going to do it.”
What can I do?
First, be more cautious of the information you voluntary hand over.
“Don’t hand over data unless you have to!” Ms. Hill said. “If a store asks for your email address or ZIP code, say no. When Facebook asks you to upload your contact book, don’t do it. If you’re buying some sensitive product (prenatal vitamins, medication), don’t use your store loyalty card and use cash.”
Added Mr. Cyphers: “Think hard before you enter your email into a form online about why the company actually needs your email and what they might do with it. You can lie. It’s not illegal to put a fake email, or a fake phone number or a fake name in the vast majority of services you sign up for,” he said. “There’s no reason they need it, there’s no reason you have to give it to them.”
Beyond being more wary of handing out your data, there are some things you can do about the data that is already out there — and now we come back to that privacy checkup I mentioned earlier.
One of the best resources for opting out of advertiser tracking is the website simpleoptout.com, which provides links to the opt-out pages for some of the most popular destinations online — places that are definitely tracking you as you read this.
Some of the major ones you should opt out of right now include:
Google (This one will take a while, it’s a labyrinth of menus and settings.)
Additionally, do a checkup of how social media sites are using your data:
There are also extensions you can install to your web browser to prevent some online tracking. The EFF has built two tools you should install — Privacy Badger and HTTPS Everywhere — and also recommends the extension uBlock Origin. The EFF also has this guide to Surveillance Self-Defense, which has an extensive library of guides to protecting yourself online. And as for your general browsing, think about using Mozilla’s Firefox if you don’t already; this story from The Washington Post will tell you why.
Your smartphone is a whole other game of cat and mouse, but there are a few basic things everyone should do. This guide from USA Today is a perfect place to start, whether you have an iPhone or Android device.
Phew! It’s a lot, I know, and unfortunately we’re only scratching the surface; protecting your privacy is a never-ending process that requires constant vigilance. But each of these steps is worth the time investment, and perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind: Don’t let yourself be lulled into a false sense of security.
“I wish I could say it has changed my behavior,” Ms. Hill said when I asked her if reporting her story on Sift has changed her online behavior, “but what’s become clearer and clearer to me in reporting on privacy over the last decade is that you can’t completely stop the data collection (unless you go live in a dark cave sans power).”
She added: “But at the end of the day, there is little we can do as individuals; there’s really a need for change on a more systemic level to give us more control over our data.”
I want to hear about your experiences as you do a checkup on your digital privacy. Tell me on Twiter @timherrera.
Thanks, have a great week!
Tip of the Week
This week I’ve invited the writer Kate Oczypok to teach how to make the perfect table centerpiece.
With the holiday season now upon us, I’m starting to think about what I’d like my holiday table to look like. And if there’s one part of a festive table that makes for great conversation, it’s a gorgeous centerpiece.
If you’re fretting about the last piece of the puzzle for your holiday dinner, here are three ideas for the perfect centerpiece this season.
Use your space wisely
If you live in a small apartment, chances are you’re not going to go for a big, cascading centerpiece. Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, suggests using tea lights in votives to set the mood; they won’t drip wax on the table and since they’re shorter candles, guests can see one another across the table. Also, the centerpiece won’t look as if it’s overpowering your entire apartment.
Think outside the box
When our dog passed away last spring, my boyfriend and I were overwhelmed by the generosity of friends and family. Our loved ones had sent us five bouquets of flowers and we didn’t know what to do with all of them. Since Easter was just days away and we had friends coming for dinner, we put a leaf on our dining table and lined the center of it with the bouquets. It was a beautiful tribute to our dear old Moe.
Go for the unusual
If what you choose to put at the center of your table is unusual, chances are it will be a great icebreaker, especially for guests who don’t know one another. This Air Plant Trio is small and just oddly shaped enough to encourage some fun dinner talk. They come with eight different choices for planter color, too, and they look great grouped together on a holiday table.