Do You Trust the Internet?

We enjoy so many benefits from the advancements in search and mobile technology, but with the good, comes the corrupt.  If you haven’t checked in on the digital industry lately, fasten your seat belt.  Here’s a glimpse into a world that is collecting your data and your children’s data and making intelligent connections to predict your feelings, stances, tendencies, and more. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Why Privacy Is a Big Deal251_5117

Based on a survey of 2012 consumers, Accenture, a digital marketing company, reports that “The vast majority (80 percent) of consumers aged 20-40 in the United States and the United Kingdom believe total privacy in the digital world is a thing of the past, and nearly half (49 percent) said they would not object to having their buying behavior tracked if it would result in relevant offers from brands and suppliers.”  You might not see it or understand it, but collection of your family’s Internet history, face profiles, store behaviors, and even school test results are regularly recorded through Internet, video, and audio monitoring.  You don’t know who sees this information, how they react when they see it, and what conclusions they draw.

It’s true that many good people use data to keep society safe, bring better search results, find medical cures, or improve shopping experiences. It’s equally true that evil can corrupt good intent.

We can look back in history and find many examples of governments, leaders, and companies that became powerful and rich and were willing to step over and hurt many people to achieve their goals. In fact, we can see these behaviors today.

On the other hand, sharing data is a way to move our society forward a little faster.  After all, any tool or device has potential for good or evil. What comes of your data depends on the persons using it.  But, do you know those people? Not so much.

How is your information collected?  Here are a few of the most common places and what you can do to minimize how much is shared.

Through Search Engines

Search engines like Google, Bing, and even Facebook and Twitter track what you visit on the Internet, how long you stay on each website, and how often you go back to certain websites.  This information helps search engines determine how to sell what you’re interested in seeing or anticipate what you’ll want next.

Many leaders in digital technology believe that access to your actions, patterns, and thoughts is necessary to better deliver accurate search results. People, communities, and even the computers themselves can learn from data to better society.

Website owners know how many people visit their websites, what links they click, the time of day they visit, the city they visit from, their default language, and what keywords people typed into search engines to get there. While the website owners don’t see exact names and addresses from Bing, Google, or Duck Duck Go, search companies do know who you are by your computer’s IP address or cookies.  An IP address, or Internet Protocol address, is your computer’s personal address and is a series of unique numbers separated by periods. Cookies are pieces of data left behind in your computer that track what you do online.

Search engines also charge your favorite stores fees to advertise to you.  Google knows a lot about what you like and dislike, the type of person you are (based on what you do or don’t search), your age, and how you might react to certain ads based on all of the data it has collected through the years from your Google searches, You Tube views, cloud storage, map and location data, use of Google Chrome, and sent or received email content.  Yes, that’s right.  Email content. If you own a Gmail account, Google scans the content of your emails and shows ads related to what you wrote or opened, so that you’ll click on those ads and buy products or services.

Data for the Government

Police and investigators used information from mobile phones, license plate recognition technology, cell phone towers, and surveillance cameras to track down the Boston bombers in 2013.  Government authorities monitor citizen Internet activity- even the activity of those who aren’t known criminals.

Frontline produced The United States of Secrets, in which it explains how the government changed its privacy policy after September 11, 2001 to get around Google’s filters, in order to learn a lot about each and every citizen. The government argues that it has a right to see everyone’s data in order to keep the United States a safer place to live.  Edward Snowden, a former intelligence analyst for the government, didn’t think it was right that the government monitored citizens without their knowledge, so he gave secret documents to a couple newspapers.  Some consider Snowden a hero, while others think he’s a traitor.

Through Retailers

When you submit personal or financial information to a company, the company will connect a lot of the data about what you do to your account. They might even give or sell that information to other companies.

When you scan a “loyalty card” or download coupons online, you might receive savings, but grocery stores are really interested in what you buy, how often you buy, and how to sell more items to you. Retailers often have security systems in stores that recognize faces to make sure you don’t steal.  These same security systems can also analyze how customers shop through the store and compile traffic patterns into heat maps. Stores and malls are now using beacons and geo-fencing. Both forms of technology know when your phone is nearby down to the inch. Retailers want to know this information in order to offer you incentives to buy products on the spot.

At a leading, 2014 Internet retailing conference, a sales person for a data collection company shared some insights about her company’s work with a top children’s book publisher.  You might even have an account set up online with this company.  The sales person said that this publisher “wanted to create a master profile across all of their different business units.  They have e-books. They have printables and they send flyers home to schools.”  The publisher uses software with a special algorithm that can tell when parents are shopping for all of their children verses when each child is shopping for himself or herself- even when multiple children are sharing one account with their parents.  The software gathers information about specific behaviors and shows books based on what it knows about who is probably using the account.

The algorithm knows who you are based on your mouse movements and quickness. For example, an adult’s eyes usually first look at the top left of a new web page, while children first tend to look at the bottom right. Where you hover your mouse and where you first enter the publisher’s website are also monitored. Kids tend to use wish lists and ask for every book in a series more than adults do.  Kids click on icons like hearts more than they click on words like, “I like this.”  The publisher has worked with this data collection company for five years to learn customers’ behaviors on its site and create special algorithms that increase sales from this data.

The sales person said, “We track everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re an adult or a child. The thing is exposure. How do you expose our data and what, from a privacy standpoint, is okay to expose about a child and what is okay to expose about an adult?”

So what is okay?

“For this particular publisher, they will not do marketing for people under the age of 13.” So if children visit different websites after visiting the publisher, remarketing isn’t used.  Remarketing, is tracking your behavior as you visit other websites and then serving up ads about, say, about certain books you like from the publisher’s website. If you’re over 13, this top publisher will try to get you to buy books, even when you’re not thinking about buying books, by serving you ads when you’re browsing other websites.  Keep in mind that this is one publisher’s guidelines.  Another company might track and retarget with ads at much younger ages and be okay about it.  Any company that stores all of this information about you and your patterns, might use it or release it to others- anyone they choose- when you or your kids are older.

This technology exists across all the websites you visit.

Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and other Social Media Websites

What do the thumbs up signs mean?  It’s not only a way of connecting with your friends, it’s a way to see who your good friends and family members really are and the areas, hobbies, or activities you like.  This information, along with sharing your image or commenting on a friend’s photo can again be collected to create profiles about you and to create great products you like or shape the nature of search information provided to you.

Earlier this year, Facebook allowed researchers to make it hard for some users to log in by accusing them of being hackers.  The researchers wanted to test how people would react to negative events.  Many people feel that allowing researchers to frustrate Facebook customers went too far and was wrong.  Who were the researchers and why were they given access to these accounts?

Facebook has since clarified its privacy policy and is even working on a way of helping you to police yourself before you post damaging photos.

Privacy Boundaries

There are many different opinions about privacy and data protection.

In Julia Angwin’s article for the WSJ, she says that, “My children, whom I will call Woody and Harriet, are 6 and 9. They use fake names online—always. They use software to block online tracking, and instead of Googling homework assignments, they use a search engine that doesn’t store any data about their queries. They have stickers that cover their computer cameras. Harriet, my older child, uses an encryption program to scramble her calls and texts to my cellphone, using passwords that are 20 characters long. Why go to such extremes at such a young age? Because if I don’t do anything to help my children learn to protect themselves, all their data will be swept up into giant databases, and their identity will be forever shaped by that information… Even worse, if my children leave their data lying around, they will face all the risks of what I call our ‘dragnet nation,’ in which increased computing power and cheap data storage have fueled a new type of surveillance: suspicionless, computerized, impersonal and vast in scope. Criminals could use my kids’ data to impersonate them for financial fraud. Extortionists could seize control of their computers’ Web cameras and blackmail them with nude photos. And most terrifyingly, their innocent online inquiries would be forever stored in databases that could later place them under suspicion or be used to manipulate them financially.”

On the other hand, twelve-year-old Grant, started making You Tube videos about fire safety when he was eight years old.  He is serious about wanting a career in this area.  He candidly reviews fire safety products for his audience and is steadily building a following within the fire safety industry. The Internet has been instrumental in advancing his skills and interest at an early age. It has been a wonderful teacher and avenue for networking!

Different adults will look at this issue differently, so it’s important to talk about it with your own children. Review the below checklist of actions you can take to keep your data safer.

Privacy Checklist

  • Regularly clear your search history and cookies on phones, tablets, and desktop computers.
  • Pause before letting someone interview you, take your picture, or record your voice. Newspaper articles and television interviews are especially hard to remove from the Internet. Do you really want this event on your record?
  • Search your name on the Internet and ask sites to remove PDFs, articles, images, or quotes that make you feel uncomfortable. Some sites will honor your requests.
  • Use fake names and accounts when shopping. Don’t answer surveys.
  • Stop publishing selfies. Don’t share all of the details of your life in a blog or social media post.
  • Go back through all of your social media accounts and delete old posts, pictures, and videos.
  • Ask school leaders how your district is preventing data from being shared with online testing companies and their partners.
  • Search with alternative engines like Duck Duck Go or use Google’s Incognito mode, which reduces the amount of tracking of your data.
  • Avoid giving personal information about yourself to a stranger online- even if they appear to be a kid.
  • Kids, don’t download files, pictures, or songs or click on links without a parent’s approval.
  • Use anti-virus and anti-spyware software.
  • Consider encrypting all of your emails, calls, and texts. There are many apps and software programs out there.
  • Cover the cameras on your phones, iPads, and computers.
  • Watch what you say, what you do, and what you wear in public.  Most places- schools, stores, neighborhoods, and city streets videotape and monitor you.

Just remember, though, unless you’ve stayed off of the Internet over the last couple decades, much of your information is already known.  You also have to ask yourself, is extreme self-consciousness worth your peace?  With over 7.1 billion people on the planet, all of your data mixed with everyone else’s data is frankly, a lot of data for others – or even computers to dedicate time to dissecting.  Of course, if you’re Sony execs today, you’re sweating thinking about every single email that was ever sent and what was said in those emails. Trusting the Internet with your information is a very individual choice worth serious thought and reflection as you move forward into 2015.

~Jean

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Filed under Business Strategy, Customer Profile, Education Strategy, Leadership, Reputation Management, School Websites, Social Media

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