10 Ways You Are Being Tracked
Among Internet users, I believe there are three major user categories, according to how worried or aware they are of the ways their information can be tracked online.
- Aware — the user knows that is being tracked, and takes measures in order to be more protected.
- Unaware — the user is not aware that is being tracked, and obviously does not take any measures to be more protected.
- In between — the user is aware, and careful at times, but is not too worried, so does not do a big effort to get more protected.
I am not interested in explaining how could you benefit by protecting yourself of being tracked online, but in listing the ways we can be, and probably already are, being tracked on the things we do when connected to the Internet.
When they say its free, it means you are the product — Quentin Hardy.
Being tracked does not imply anyone is looking at you, it just means you are part of the big data compound formed by Internet companies. Free services aren't more than companies being wise enough to make money using the private date you trade in order to use them.
What comes next is a list of several online services, grouped by the kind of data they usually track from their users, and that you agree on giving them from the moment you sign up.
1. What You Listen To
Last.fm tracks what you listen to. Spotify as well, but in a deeper way, as it can see what you are searching for, the trends on artists people is looking for. At least, Last.fm allows you to scrobble what you are listening just if you want to.
2. What You Are Working On, or What You Own
iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive. Here is where you keep your documents, what you use or store; work documents, personal documents, designs, pictures, music, videos, and so on.
Toggl. Lets you track what you work on, but as in the case of Last.fm scrobbling, your input is completely optional.
3. What You Want, Will, or Did Buy
Amazon, eBay. They keep track of everything you search for, buy, or you open — they seek this information in order to display ads of what you are looking for and did not buy yet, so you buy it from them — customized recommendations, Minority Report style.
4. What You Watch
YouTube, Vimeo. When you stream video or music from these channels, your history may also be stored and associated to your account (this is a feature you can deactivate in your Google account, but is activated by default).
5. What You Did
Facebook, Google+. Like it or not, other people also knows information about you. If your social network profile settings allow it, other people will be able to add pictures of you, tag you on them, and make them appear in your personal profile — telling a story of what you have been up to.
6. What You Search, or Are Thinking on Searching
Google, Bing, Yahoo (well, almost no one uses the last two anymore). They track what you type, what you are searching for, and what you are thinking on searching for. They even track what websites you are going to visit if you mistype the URL in the browser (i.e. typing "youtube,com" will search it on Google instead of going to YouTube.com).
Right, and that isn't all, your whole search history is stored in a huge archive, arranged by dates, and associated to your Google account — in case you were logged into your Google account when searching. You can check your full archive here.
7. What You Say
Gmail, WhatsApp, Facebook, Skype, Hangout, LinkedIn. They track what you are talking about, what you tell your closest friends, and your most professional relationships online.
A funny fact, you can delete all of your conversations from any service, but if the person who sent or received the message keeps it in her account, the service is legally free to keep your message for as long as the other person keeps it online — in many cases, forever.
Tell us what your are thinking, but please be concise — just 140 characters.
Twitter, Ello, App.net. Short messages that leave a trace of what you were thinking, reading, doing. Usually, the content is publicly visible, and in some cases you can opt to make it private.
8. What You Have To Do and Who You Know
Android and iOS accounts (iCloud, Google account). They keep track of your Contacts, Calendar, Reminders, Notes. Everything you do, everything you plan to do, and everything you write down, just associated to your credit card, your name, and your location (in case you choose to have this service on).
9. Where You Are, and Where You Have Been
Google Maps, Locate Your iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, Reminders. These are only some of the services that — if you grant them access — will provide some extra functionality in exchange of knowing where you are.
Also, many of them keep information of the location your account accesses from. Gmail can basically build a timeline of where you have been over the last years.
10. What You Look Like
Biometric technology — like face recognition — is evolving faster than ever before. Even though Facebook did remove the tagging feature through face recognition back in 2012, due to European law infringement, the technology is a bit scary — I believe that Picassa did also remove this feature for the same reason. London police was holding an amount of over 18 million mugshots, which does not seem to work that well for criminal recognitions. But that is CCTV. What is actually crazy is that, in social media, we are the ones tagging ourselves and building Facebook's database. So, no matter if pictures were uploaded by you or by your friends, Facebook may already know who you are.
I am surely leaving aside a lot of other ways we are daily being tracked, and there will be more appearing in the next years. But the important part is that, as users, we have the responsibility to be aware of the trade of private data needed in order to use a given service.
Cover picture taken by Sonia Pino.