Are You for Sale?

Picture yourself on the slave auction -- having your interests and secrets probed by potential buyers and shared by sellers.  Your actions online are being tracked by every website you visit and some you don't.  The days of ads broadcast in a wide net are over.  Today's advertisers can narrowly target ads just for you.  And it's not just online.  Brick and mortar stores have become much more sophisticated too.  A recent story in the New York Times explained how Target stores use your purchasing history to find out things your family may not even know, like the girl whose father found out she was pregnant when she received personalized ads for baby products in the mail. We should have known.  Why do you think they call it "target"?

Consider those Facebook ads on the right of your home page.  Noticed that they feature local businesses, products targeted to your age group or particular interests?  I took out Facebook ads for non-profits last year and was surprised with all the targeting options.  Where you live, your age and gender, your education level, your marital or dating status, music preferences -- all of this is on the auction block.  And it actually is an auction -- the advertiser bids on prices to target you.  If you're in a hot category, there's more competition and the ads are costlier. The buyer can't get your name or contact information but anything else you've shared on Facebook is fair game.

Facebook is at the apex of selling your information to advertisers but Google is right behind them.  Did you search for hair growth, guitar music, toenail fungus or airline tickets?  Google saves that information about you and markets it.  And Google, Facebook and others push the boundaries, saving info long after you've deleted it. 

Cell phone providers also track your every movement (if your phone is on, there's a record of where it went) with or without GPS enabled.  And if you TIVO your favorite shows, your cable or satellite TV company is tracking your tastes also.  Other than refusing to use cell phones, the internet, TIVO and credit and debit cards, what can you do?  Here are a few ways to fight back, a bit like David's slingshot fired at Goliath's left knee.

In Stores
  •  Shop locally in locally owned stores.  I doubt the shop downtown has the resources to collect and sell your information. Plus you're helping your community.
  • Avoid store cards.  Those discount or membership cards they scan for your purchases are terrific tracking devices.  Many stores will scan a master version for you to get the discounts.  Or seek out stores that don't use them.
  • Consider carrying cash for your purchases instead of using your ATM or credit cards.
  • Install an adblock program.  For Firefox, you can get it here.  You may still be targeted but you won't see any ads.
  • Set your internet program to delete cookies when you close.  Go to TOOLS, then OPTIONS, then PRIVACY and select "Keep until I close Firefox".  There should be a similar option in IE.  The cost of this?  You'll have to log into your favorite sites each time you reopen your browser.  
  • Avoid Google search.  Yahoo! Search is less aggressive about tracking and selling your information.  Here's an (unvetted) site with other non-tracking search engines.  You can set a different search engine as your default.
  • When you log into a new site, create a unique log-in.  Logging in with Facebook, Twitter, Google or OpenID links your activities across multiple sites.
  • Untag photographs on Facebook.  Their facial recognition software is downright frightening.  Clean up your Facebook account by removing old notes, photos and much of your personal information.
I try to do all of these things -- except carrying cash, can't manage to remember.  But I was reminded recently that "If you use a website for free, you're not the client.  You're the product."  And yes, I do enjoy using free sites like search engines, Twitter and Facebook.  They're only free if they can sell me to advertisers.  I get that.  But I still want to do the easy things to protect myself.