Increasingly, it feels like the battle over online privacy is lost. Although there are new laws and investigations into company practices, every day we continue to buy and use products and services that gather data on us even while we complain about the intrusion. Personally, I fired Amazons Alexa after I got an email promotion about buying a neck roll after I was simply talking aloud about my neck hurting, but I continue to use other devices and services. I think it is important we all understand how much information is being gathered about us.
For example, anyone who uses Google—primarily an advertising company--for searching online is providing invaluable information to the company about their interests. In return, Google delivers ads based on those interests that follow you around from site to site, desktop to tablet to phone.
If you use an Android device (which is owned by Google) or product such as Gmail, Google Calendar, Hangout, Drive, etc., Google has accumulated even more information about you including: location, app usage, text messages, emails, appointments, and photos. When you speak to Google Home, those recordings are also collected. The company also knows what videos you watch because it owns YouTube and recently, Google purchased Fitbit which will give it access to your health-related data. Coming soon, Google is also looking at partnering with health providers and financial institutions.
While companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook get most of the attention when discussing online privacy, the reality is that many companies, large and small, are collecting data on us to use directly or selling it to third-parties who will use it for various purposes. The European Union has enacted new data privacy rules, known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). However, in the U.S., California has only recently taken the lead in the absence of federal law. These laws are still limited and while companies are supposed to disclose and abide by their data privacy policies, these are often deliberately confusing and broad. As a result, most people still do not fully understand what information is being collecting and how it is being used.
You may think you can protect yourself by making sure you search anonymously, delete cookies or refuse to share data when you are prompted. However, there are many ways to gather data on you, so your activity is not completely private.
Protecting privacy is a complicated matter. The solution lies in a combination of regulatory action, technology, internal company policies and a change in consumer behavior.
Are you willing to give up some of the conveniences of technology to protect your privacy? Let me know your thoughts.
For information on disabling listening features on some of your devices, read "You’re not paranoid: Your phone really is listening in."