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It began innocently enough. You swipe your grocery club card at checkout, and as you gather your bags, the checkout clerk hands you some coupons with offers on the products you just purchased. Never mind that one included a dollar off on a product you just paid full price for, because from that moment on, your purchasing behavior was being tracked and compiled so that future offers could be tailored to your preferences.
Most people don’t give retail tracking a second thought. In fact many find it convenient that the store will bring to their attention only those products in which they have an interest.
Flash forward to the future, and you walk into Wal-Mart. Unbeknownst to you, your retina is scanned for identification, and the next thing you know you are being handed a printout of the day’s specials. But the only items you see are those that you have purchased in the past or that are recommended based on your purchasing habits. Convenient? Perhaps. Creepy? Most definitely.
As for credit and debit cards, you can’t possible think that the card companies don’t track the billions of transactions made each day for use in data mining and marketing. Information on your buying habits is like gold to marketers who want to be able to make a direct pitch to you if you match their profile.
Now, the card companies don’t actually sell your personal information to anyone, but they do compile the data in a way that creates target profiles, by zip code, so the marketers who do buy the data can find you more easily.
Retail tracking and credit card data mining have become accepted practices by consumers who understand that with the convenience of plastic cards comes some minor loss of privacy, and thus far, it hasn’t really harmed anyone. But these old-school practices pale in comparison to the techno-voyeurism that takes place on the Internet each time you log on when every keystroke and every click and how much time you linger is recorded.
As you wander through the Internet cloud you leave a trail of cookies that reveal to the world what sites you visit, what products you look at, and how you like your eggs. Well, maybe not so much with the eggs, but advertisers and marketers can compile enough data on you to make such inferences.
Technically, your personal identity is not at risk. You are nothing more than a number, an I.P. address, to the outside world. But there are ways to find out who lives at that address. Your personal information that you enter into order forms and such is fairly well guarded with encryption technology (although you need to verify that the site uses it – look for “https” in the address line).
Regardless, wherever you go on the Internet, you are being watched and your behavior is being recorded. Relax. It’s not for any sort of nefarious purpose (that we know of); rather, it’s so that the advertisers and marketers can place ads, strategically chosen based on your online behavior, where you are most likely to see them.
This practice started long ago with Yahoo. But Google, with its dominant search domain, took it to another level and beyond. In fact, some of the fastest growing companies in the world right now – Apple, Google, Facebook, Yelp, Groupon – generate more than a trillion dollars each year by tracking you and then selling targeted ad space to companies all across the globe.
The reality is that most people simply ignore all of the ads. In fact, marketing experts are beginning to question whether the business models of Facebook and Google can survive when less than 10% of their users actually click-through any of the ads. Then again, considering that those two companies combined have more than a trillion users all over the world, it can still generate a lot of revenue.
For those who don’t view it as a “convenience” or just a slight annoyance, and more of an intrusion in their lives, there are ways to take yourself off the tracking grid. In fact, the biggest tracker of them all, Google, allows certain settings that will limit what online activity will be stored.
You can also change your “ad preferences” so that only those products you choose will show up when you browse. If you use Google Chrome, you can install the Keep My Opt-Outs app which will help you globally manage all of your opt-outs. This won’t cut down on the ads you will see; you just won’t see any ads tailored to your profile.
For a more global approach to protecting your privacy, you can do a regular cleansing of your browser history and your cookies. When you do that, you also disable the automatic search function that locates sites based on a single letter input. You also erase any saved log-on IDs. Convenient? No. But you won’t have that creepy feeling that someone is watching you.
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