Big Brother is Selling You

The Article

I do not mind advertising, and this site is even ad supported! I am at times frustrated with some ads due to either the frequency of specific advertising or sometimes because of the content. But otherwise, I am not opposed to ads…unless they are so targeted that I feel like a monkey is on my back forcing shiny objects before my eyes. But this is the new frontier of advertising.

I help to teach a Financial Peace University course and just last week we were talking about the pitfalls for impulse buying after watching the lesson Buyer Beware.  One student mentioned the modern problem of looking something up online and then seeing that item advertised to her on every site she visited for the foreseeable future.  I know the feeling and a similar occurrence caused me to dump Google for most of my internet searches in favor of StartPage.  Now I can perform Internet searches without seeing the products loosely related to my search terms plastered all over my screen.

If you use a desktop or laptop computer some of these ad networks and trackers can be removed by researching the affiliated websites and blocking them in your hosts file.  You could also try the Disconnect browser extension.  Sadly mobile phones (to my knowledge) do not allow you to edit your hosts file and I did not see a disconnect app as of this writing for my FireFox browser on the Android.  Sadly the more we use our mobile devices the more data we are giving up, not just to Google or the website but to many other data collection organizations.  Data collection organizations even collect, compile, and sell information about all of us.  And we are powerless.

Big Brother…Yahoo!

The data collection, sharing, and selling is scary enough, but Yahoo! recently filed a very scary patent that resembles Minority Report set in 1984.  Remember the futuristic world where Tom Cruise is walking down the street and the signs are calling him by name and presenting an ad?  Yahoo is looking to do that through a process called ‘grouplization’ although a little different.  They are not (yet) going to call people by name, but they are wanting to use advanced data collection techniques to narrow the demographic as narrow as possible.  They do, however, know who is actually arises.  From their patent, they say:

[0024] The nature of the real-time information may vary considerably as well. For example and as discussed above, such information might represent the size of the target audience in various ways. That is, traffic sensor data, image/video data, audio data, etc., can be used to count or estimate the number of vehicles on the road, from which the size of the audience can be estimated; image/video data can be used to identify the makes and/or models of particular vehicles in the vicinity; mobile device data or image/video data can be used to identify specific individuals in the target audience; vehicle navigation and/or tracking data can be used to identify specific vehicles and/or drivers; light sensors can measure the ambient light; temperature sensors can measure the ambient temperature; etc. And with the increasing instrumentation of ordinary objects such as smart appliance, vehicles, etc. (i.e., the “Internet of Things”), the sources of data and information that may be used to enable the techniques described herein are virtually limitless. That is, any sensors or sensor systems that generate data or collect information in real-time that represent some aspect of the context in which the electronic public advertising display is situated (including the target audience) may be used.

This segment is a scary proposition and out of the twelve page patent application I identified five pages of sections with similar wording.  Yahoo! is planning on using a variety of data collection devices from roadside cameras to even the microphones and GPS in your phones to collect personal data to narrow down your interests to sell you more, to breed discontent, to separate you from your money.  This is a bad plan.

Marketing to get your product out there is a fine thing, but scooping up every bit of data to turn around and sell your information to breed more discontent is bad for the individual.  As I mentioned, I help teach a Final Peace class where we are helping people to get a handle on their money.  We teach people to have a plan and to resist buying things that we do not need while we clean up our collective financial messes, but the companies have always been at odds with our plans.  Simple marketing or marketing that aligns with the things we are viewing online is not a problem.  If I am watching a Linux video, it makes sense to see a related commercial and that is OK, but if I am letting Google sweep up everything I search for so it delivers ‘relevant’ ads is bothersome.  And they sell it like we want it!  How many times have you heard, “We will be xyz to give you more relevant ads.”  Did they ever ask if I want more relevant ads?  I do not, but sadly there is no way to opt out of this data collection.

What Can We Do?

There are steps we can take to minimize the data that companies collect on us, but going completely off the grid is not always possible.  Here are the steps I have taken:

  1. Do not use Google for searches unless you are having a hard time finding good results.  I use Startpage as my general search engine but sometimes I just do not get good results, and that is when I turn to Google.
  2. Opt out of as much data collection you can.  You can opt out of Google Analytics here, Google Personalized Ads Here, Microsoft Personalized Ads, Yahoo! does not appear to have an opt out.  These are not bulletproof; usually it is just another cookie, but clearing cookies regularly is another good habit.
  3. Use a variety of web browsers (even on mobile) and clear cookies regularly.  Usually the cookies is what gives most of our searching data to companies.
  4. Consider using Tor for some or all of your basic web browsing.  It is slower and you should not use this for banking or other sites you would consider safe, but this will really prevent companies from spying on your web surfing.
  5. Use Linux.  Both Windows and Mac are not collecting a lot of data.  You can generally turn off most of the Mac data collection; Windows will not stop talking to Microsoft even with all of the privacy settings turned off.  Linux does not communicate data back to the company, but beware of the programs you are using.
  6. Never give more data than you have to give and determine whether giving up your personal data is worth what you receive in exchange.
  7. Be cautious of the permissions a downloaded app asks you for.  Many app developers are merely data-collection farms and by using the apps you may be allowing the developer to use your data any way they want.
  8. Remember that if you not pay for a cool new service, you are probably the product being sold.

We need to be be careful with the data we are leaving behind so we do not become another ‘individual’ that Yahoo! can market to with their creepy new Smart Billboards.

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