How to Fight Privacy Pirates

You can take steps to block online tracking, or you can profit if you play along.

From your smart phone’s signals that show where you are and where you’ve been, to “tracking cookies” that deposit themselves in your Web browser’s files, to the one-way mirrors in the mall, companies are attempting to shadow your every move. “The average consumer doesn’t realize the extent to which information is being gathered,” says John Simpson, director of the privacy project at Consumer Watchdog, in Santa Monica, Cal. “Everywhere you go, the sites you visit and what you see are all being tracked.”

Monitoring your behavior to figure out what you might buy isn’t new. Direct marketers have been doing this in the offline world for years. But the computerized world allows for far-more-detailed consumer surveillance that captures an increasing amount of your day-to-day activity -- from socializing with friends to searching the Web. And when you combine online and offline data, the amount of information that marketers can determine or infer is enormous -- and increasingly intrusive, says Ioana Rusu, regulatory counsel at Consumers Union.

Privacy advocates call the mass monitoring “creepy” and “terrifying,” but the advertising companies that are doing the bulk of the watching say their intentions are far from nefarious. The aim is to deliver advertisements that suit your interests, says Peter Kosmala, of the Digital Advertising Alliance. That helps you locate products and services, and it even answers your questions when you are searching the Web. Moreover, although some demonize the cookies that leave crumbs to show your digital path, these same digital tracking devices allow you to re-enter sites easily, share things you like with your friends, and save money when you’re buying items that you purchase regularly.

As the extent of behavioral monitoring becomes better known, it presents an intriguing choice for consumers: Do you want to protect your privacy, or do you want to profit from sharing your personal information? “The lure of freebies is very powerful for consumers,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of America. “The question is whether you’re getting a fair trade.”

What they know about you

The key to making a wise decision about whether to protect your privacy or profit from sharing is understanding just what personal data is being gathered and brokered. That, unfortunately, is not easy to know.

You can get a glimpse of how much is known about you if you know where to look. For starters, check out The site maps your digital footprint, says CEO Michael Hussey. It matches personal Web pages and blogs with Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, among other things. “We are indexing the public Web -- what a robot could see without having to log in,” he says. The result is a vast array of information listed under your name -- some accurate, some not -- including your age, address, and where you work and went to school. (I was delighted to learn that I’m only 33.) The site also links to “public record” brokers, such as PeopleSmart, Spokeo and Intelius, which can provide significantly more personal information. By clicking through those links, I found my address, photo, contact information and a photo of my former home -- all without paying a fee. If you pay as little as a dollar, you can get far more, including maiden names and address histories.

Now cruise over to, where all you enter is your e-mail address. RapLeaf will respond with its estimate of where you live plus your age, household income, education level, homeownership status, personal interests and the number of children in your family. The company aids businesses that want to know more about customers who have been willing to give them only e-mail addresses.

If you surf the Web, potentially hundreds of companies know your interests. That’s because dozens of cookies may be invisibly encrusted in your Web browser. Cookies allow Web sites to recognize a computer they have seen before. That’s how sites such as can deliver book suggestions based on your purchases and how the New York Times can recognize a subscriber. (For more about monitoring personal information on the Web, see Use Social Media to Retool Your Career.)

But whereas an old-style cookie just tracked you at a single site, many of today’s cookies track your progress from site to site. Thus, the advertisers who drop them may know that you read the New York Times “Style” section before you check sports scores at ESPN.

Advertisers, under fire for the increasingly invasive nature of their data collection, are careful to say that they’re not tracking you—they only monitor what your computer does. That gives the impression that the individual keeps a sense of anonymity. But Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, says it’s now so simple to connect the data collected on your device to your personal information at sites such as RapLeaf, Spokeo and Facebook that the distinction is irrelevant. “If you have a social-networking profile, it closes that last gap between the online marketers and the offline information that’s gathered about you,” she says.

In fact, Facebook now automatically “maps” the faces of people appearing in photos. If you’ve been tagged in enough pictures for the software to map your face accurately, the site’s computers will recognize you even when you haven’t identified yourself. Facebook’s latest update also changed the nature of the little share icons featured on hundreds of thousands of other sites. Those icons used to send data back to Facebook when you clicked on them; now they gather information on you whether you click on them or not, says Rob Shavell, co-founder of privacy Web site Abine.

Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar retailers are increasingly employing “digital signs” that appear to show videos or news but actually function as cameras, capturing your image -- what you view, how you behave, what catches your interest, says Dixon. You can’t even get away from computerized spies when you jump in the car. General Motors subsidiary OnStar just told customers that it will be tracking their every move starting in December. And it will keep monitoring customers even after they cancel the service. (Customers can call OnStar to deactivate data collection.)

Beyond ads

Companies say the data is being used for just one purpose: advertising. Many of the ads you see on the Web are specifically geared to you. The person who cruised from the Style section to ESPN, for example, might be categorized both as a “sports enthusiast” and as “fashion-conscious.” Thus, the next site he visits is likely to show ads targeted to people who like sports or fashion, or both. But if an ad appears several times and he doesn’t click on it, it will disappear in future searches because the ad mechanism also tracks what you don’t appear to want. The point of monitoring your digital behavior is relevance, says Mike Zaneis, general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau. By looking at what you buy and what you don’t buy, advertisers can enhance your experience -- and theirs.

Relevant ads don’t worry privacy advocates. But they’re not convinced that the data isn’t being used for other purposes. No one tracks the data trackers, so there’s simply no way to know. Public (and some private) data on social-networking profiles is already being used by employers to make hiring and firing decisions -- and appearing in a growing number of court cases. Marketing lists, whether compiled by online or offline sources, have been used by con artists to target elderly and vulnerable investors for years. Even medical information, which must be kept private by federal law, is brokered in ways that appear to target the helpless. Consider the “Mental Health Problems” list for sale that Dixon found in 2009, while she was pushing for curbs on data gathering. It’s a compendium of names and addresses of three million individuals who have mental illnesses ranging from depression to dementia.

Could searching for cancer cures cost you your health insurance? Will the GPS in your car or cell phone tell your insurer that you drive too fast and get your auto policy canceled? Could your Internet search habits and what’s inferred from them have an impact on which products you see and the prices you pay for goods and services? These are all distinct possibilities, says Grant. And yet consumers don’t have the right to see their personal dossiers.

Privacy advocates argue that consumers should have the right to know what personal data is being sold -- and they should have the ability to correct it if it’s wrong or delete it if it’s objectionable. Since 2001, financial institutions have been unable to share personal information if you opt out of having it shared. (If you don’t, the financial institutions can sell information about your assets, income, debt levels and mortgage payments, in addition to your name and address, to third parties.) Financial institutions must also have sophisticated encryption and other protections in place to shield your account numbers, user names and passwords, but hackers often find ways around the security. (For tips on what to do if that happens, see Don't Get Hacked.)

Advertisers, on the other hand, aren’t subject to a similar law. But they say they are policing themselves and more often giving consumers the ability to opt out.

If you’re a person who doesn’t mind sharing private information, there’s an alternative. A number of companies, ranging from MyPoints to Swagbucks, will pay you in cash, merchandise or gift cards if you’re willing to take surveys, read or watch advertising messages, or shop online using their cookie-packed browsers.

Kristie Hasselstrom, a stay-at-home mother of five (who is pregnant with baby number six), signed up at Swagbucks nine months ago. She suffers from insomnia, so she spends a couple of hours every night clicking around, taking surveys and watching videos. That’s allowed her to earn about $400 worth of merchandise and gift cards so far (to learn more, see How to Make Money by Sharing Information Online). The hourly rate may work out to less than $1, but Hasselstrom doesn’t care. Nor does she mind the probing questions. When asked whether she might be surrendering too much privacy, she says, “That’s nothing I worry about. If you’re going to be online anyway, why not get paid for it?”

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