“How did you find me?” I had to ask. I felt like he at least owed me an answer since I had politely answered all of the questions he’d had about the car I had owned a few months earlier. A car he recently bought from a used car dealer.
“I back-tracked the VIN number through the DMV website and found your information through the state’s online database.” His response sent a wave of uneasiness through me. This was no tech geek; he was an ordinary guy who worked in construction. I was floored by how easily he was able to track me down. I immediately began imagining what someone with even a little computer background could find out about me. When I hung up the phone, I began a little digging of my own. I was surprised at what I found.
If knowledge is power, I’m pretty sure there are a ton of companies who feel pretty powerful because they have a lot of knowledge about who we are, our spending habits, places we frequent, and more. Most of us don’t give a second thought to how we use the internet. We browse, shop, bank and network under the assumption that we are anonymous unless we don’t want to be. But how anonymous are we, really? Even if we go to great lengths to keep our names off the internet, if we use security software or if we friend-lock every social media site we belong to? Is our privacy still intact?
The scary side of this is that you can search YouTube for videos that show you how to find the IP address of anyone you email. There are sites that search and find photos of a person based on the name you give them. I wouldn’t be surprised if Google or Facebook wasn’t already creating a function that can recognize your face in a photo and match it to others on the internet. I even did a little experiment myself and searched a few of my family members. What I found was disturbing at best – government documents that gave specific details on where they live. And my background isn’t in technology.
It was suddenly very clear to me that things have changed a lot in the past decade. The line between public and private has blurred, and it’s happened at a pace that was almost unnoticeable.
We are noticing now.
Why is this so important? Every time we go login online, a number of companies find out something about us. Search engines, for example, sell ads based on our search history. When you add all of that history together, collectively it tells a lot about who we are – our age, race, and gender, what we do, where we live, and what we are interested in. Facebook does it too. They gather rough data about every one of their 500+ million users, all so they can sell advertisements. You’ve seen the ads on the side of the page geared specifically toward things you’d be interested in. They have our personal data. And they are using it.
Knowing that so much personal information is being traded between advertisers and companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook is, quite frankly, a little disturbing – particularly when you consider that it isn’t so easy to simply opt out of being tracked online.
There are some steps you can take to minimize how much of your data is collected.
- Use privacy settings. Don’t just assume the default settings on your computer are sufficient. Read through your options and make a somewhat educated decision as to what you’re okay with being shared.
- Don’t share your location. Ever. Most social media sites let you “check in” and tell people where you are. Is that really such a great idea? It can help establish your patterns and more.
- Don’t fill out those questionnaires, free giveaways, or contests. They gather your info to use for marketing and your email inbox will never be the same.
- Opt-out. I mentioned it before. It isn’t always easy to find this option when you are signing up, but it’s totally worth the few extra minutes.
- Read the privacy agreement. I know. No one wants to read it. I don’t want to either, but when you download that new app for your phone or tablet, you need to know what you’re agreeing to sharing with them.
At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is…you’re not anonymous. More people than you might ever suspect hear what you do online, loud and clear. So be careful what you’re data is saying.