When I was a kid, we were warned against accepting candy from strangers. Later, as teens, we were warned against leaving our curtains open in case peeping toms were watching.
Do you remember?
I do, and like most people of the pre-digital age, I grew up with a healthy fear of those who hid in the shadows and watched my every move.
So why have we become so trusting in the digital age?
I think part of the reason is that we don’t see the internet as ‘real’. It’s part of the ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, But names will never harm me’ mentality that denies the power of words.
Unfortunately, electronic words are far more powerful than we care to admit. Online bullies use words to drive vulnerable youngsters to suicide, hackers use words to create viruses that steal critical data — e.g. the Equifax security breach in the US — and most recently, the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal.
Whether Cambridge Analytica was as successful as it claimed — i.e. influencing both the 2016 US election and BREXIT — is irrelevant. Whether it breached Facebook’s ‘rules’ is also irrelevant. What is important is that it used data that was collected and sold by Facebook.
“So what?” you say. “It’s no big deal. It’s not as if they know me.”
Ah, but that’s the trouble, they do know you, far better than you think. Want to know exactly how much data Facebook collects?
Well, there’s the obvious:
- all of the stuff we include in our profile information,
- all the stuff that we post publicly, including photos and dates and casual references to places we’ve visited and things we’ve bought in the real world,
- all of the ads we’ve clicked within Facebook,
- all of the groups we’ve joined,
- all of the people we’ve friended and liked.
But that’s just the beginning. Things get a whole lot creepier when we log out of Facebook. Instead of letting us go, the social media giant continues to track us via cookies, pixel tags and those ubiquitous ‘Like’ and ‘Share’ buttons that appear on almost every website we visit. Those buttons have the ability to track our browsing, even if we never click them.
Yes, that’s right. Those Facebook buttons lurking all over the internet are tiny peeping toms that phone home whenever they see us.
But the stalking doesn’t end there because Facebook isn’t the only online company that tracks us. Google does it too, and guess what? Google and Facebook share information, about us.
“So what?” you say. “It doesn’t matter. It’s all anonymous anyway…”
Well, I guess that depends on how you define anonymous. Just because all these companies don’t share your name doesn’t mean they don’t know who you are. It’s all to do with the kinds of data they track [and share]. Google collects your search data, of course, plus information on any ads you visit while searching, but again, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Think of all the products Google has out there. If you use webmail, chances are you use Gmail, and if you own a Samsung mobile phone, it’ll be using Android, another Google product. And they’re all inter-connected. Unless you specifically disable backup on your Android phone, all your contact information will be automatically backed up to…you guessed it, Google.
And then there’s geo-location. If you have GPS enabled on your phone, Google knows exactly where your phone is in the real world.
Now, if all these bits of data remained separate, they’d be like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each one useless on its own. But what if someone, or something, could assemble all the bits into a complete picture?
“Impossible!” you say. “There’s just too much. It’d be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Not true, not any more. Humans couldn’t assemble that kind of data, but data mining isn’t done by humans, it’s done by computers and software and a process known as Multiple Touch Attribution [MTA].
Never heard of MTA?
Me neither until a couple of weeks ago. I’m no techie geek, but as a science fiction writer I know how to look for information, and while doing research on Cambridge Analytica and internet advertising, I stumbled onto a concept I’d never heard of before. In essence, MTA measures how well various forms of marketing convert ‘touches’ [points of contact] to sales.
Sound familiar? Each one of those points of contact is a piece of the jigsaw puzzle. The more points, the more accurate the picture that emerges. We’ve already got data from social media and geo-location. Add the tracking of sales to the mix and the net effect is that we’re being stalked in the real world as well as the digital one.
Still not convinced? Then do yourself a favour and actually read the privacy statements of your favourite online companies. It’s all there, in black and white. They don’t need to hide it because they know we all skip the legal junk to get straight to the consent button. It’s human nature. We’ve all done it because none of us realise how much we’re consenting to, how much of our lives we’re giving away.
And in case you still think your privacy is a small price to pay for the free goodies you get, think again. You are being stalked by almost every company on the internet — whether you get anything for free or not!
The peeping toms are in charge, and they’ve left us with nowhere to hide.
April 6, 2018
[for information on credit cards]
[for information on geo-location]
[for information on how to avoid being tracked]
[for information on market research using MTA]
[Network Advertising Initiative — allows you to opt-out of some advertising and tracking. Self-regulated]