Who is Collecting and Marketing Your Personal Data?

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by Cathy Nolan

The Wall Street Journal conducted a study that found that the nation’s 50 top websites installed, on average, 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning. A dozen sites each installed more than a hundred. Tracking isn’t new, but the technology is growing so powerful and ubiquitous that even some of America’s biggest sites say they were unaware, until informed by the Journal, that they were installing intrusive files on visitors’ computers. Tracking companies sometimes hide their files within free software offered to websites, or hide them within other tracking files or advertisements. When this happens, websites aren’t always aware that they’re installing the files on visitors’ computers.

Tracking technology is getting smarter and more intrusive as new tools scan in real time what people are doing on a web page, then instantly assess location, income, shopping interests and even medical conditions. Some tools surreptitiously re-spawn themselves, even after users try to delete them. Whenever you access an online site, whether you are ordering a book, checking your bank balance, sending tweets, or just browsing for new lamps, you are adding to your digital footprint. Behind the scenes, data aggregators and information brokers are compiling huge amounts of information about your personal preferences and habits, and they know your interests and hobbies, your financial transactions, your life events like marriages and divorces, and much, much more. They get this from cookies, public records, your online search results, the products you have purchased, and the emails you open, to name a few. It is estimated that on average, they collect 1,500 pieces of unique personal information on each individual.

This information is then used for marketing and decision-making.  The average person receives 4 unsolicited emails per day as a result of the information that the data aggregators collect and sell to Customer Intelligence Provider or CIP companies who do targeted research around individual users and groups of users. These CIP companies capture, store, crunch and share the data in ways that help their businesses predict their customer’s behavior,…it includes blog posts, social-media feeds, GPS tracking data, online chat rooms, and audio and video content. After the data is analyzed, a company can then target advertisements and solicitations based on preferences.

Real time bidding is taking place for your phone data.  New analytic tools crowd-source data through apps, encrypting and combining tiny bits of data to create an anonymous ID and grouping them into profiles which are then sold to advertisers. Part of the fun of owning a Smartphone is getting to download a variety of apps but many apps are accessing your calendar, collecting your location and helping themselves to your personal data.

Here are some things you can do to slow down the amount of data these marketing companies are collecting about you.  First of all you have to realize that when using social media sites, nothing you put on them is truly private. Yes, you can control how users see or don’t see your profile, but every time you ‘like’ a product or even look at a page, the company itself is taking note.   You should customize your social media sites so that they don’t automatically “opt” you in to new information sharing.

For credit card companies, limit the amount of your information they share by writing or calling them within 30 days of obtaining a new card.  The same for wireless companies such as Verizon or AT&T, notify them via their websites or by calling them and if you have a family plan, remember to indicate your choice for each line.

Don’t answer questions about your financial status or any other personal questions over the phone—no matter who they say they are.  Your bank or a government agency will never ask for this type of information by phone or email.

When you are checking out of a store and the clerk asks you for your ZIP code, don’t give it to them.  The store can use your ZIP and the name on your credit card to pinpoint your home address—without asking for it directly.

Disable your location tracking on your phone except when you need it for driving directions or finding a nearby store.  Only download apps from reputable brands and make sure their user reviews include no credible complaints about security or privacy concerns.

Don’t skip the permissions section when downloading your new app, read the fine print to find out where security issues might arise.  Some apps not only help themselves to your personal data but they take pictures with your phone’s camera, track you by GPS and perform other unwanted activities.  Then they pass all this information to ad networks or analytics companies.

Lastly, you could go to aboutthedata.com to review some of the information Axiom has connected to your name.  I must warn you that to access the site you have to verify your name, address, age and create a password.  Since they already had this basic data I felt I was not giving them anything new but much of the other data connected to my name was out-of-date or just plain wrong.  I did not correct it, let them sell the incorrect data, why should I help them out?

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