When the website or online service is free, chances are the product being sold is you.
by John Sumser and Heather Bussing
The short answers are:
Who is collecting information? Every site collects some information.
What is being collected? Every site collects your IP address, the site you came from, time between clicks, where you go to when you leave, any information you give them. Sites also may collect additional information.
What are they doing with it? Figuring out what you like, so they can give you more of it, in the way you want it.
Here are some examples of additional information that is being collected or monitored. There is almost no limit on what information that could be collected.
Search Engine: What you search for and which search results you pick.
Gmail: Your contact information, your address book, and who you contact. Although we don’t know exactly what Google looks at in the content of your mail and attachments, the words you use affect which ads you see on your gmail page.
Google+ Profile: Your contact information, location, education, work history and any other information you fill in about relationships, birthday and bragging rights.
Google+ Who is in your circles, who has you in circles, what you post, how often, what you click on, what you give +1, which circles you publish to, who you interact with, and how much.
Picasa: your photographs, the date they were taken, the metadata about your camera, exposure, aperture and information you give in location and tags, including facial recognition.
Google Maps: Maps and direction you search for. If you use it through your phone to give you travel directions, it also collects information about your route and how long it took you.
YouTube: what videos you watch and search for, and which suggested videos you clicked.
Google Checkout: What you buy, from whom, for how much, when and where you had it delivered.
Google Voice: What your phone numbers are, who you call, who called you, how long you talked. There is a new box on google voice that asks you if you would donate the message so that Google can compare the voice recording with the text message, presumably to improve the accuracy of the texts.
Your name, email, photo, and depending on how complete your profile is, your birthdate, religion, political affiliation, music, books, movies, quotes.
Who your friends are and the same information about them.
Who you consider family, and the relationships.
All your status updates and notes about where you go, what you do, what you are thinking about.
Who you regularly interact with through comments and likes, and how often.
What you link to.
Your photos, including tags and facial recognition.
What companies and organizations you like.
How much time you spend on the site.
What links you click.
What ads you click.
Your games and other applications you have connected and how you use them.
Your name and contact info.
Everywhere you check in.
The duration between check ins.
Who is there with you.
How often you go.
Who you are connected to.
How often you check in with the same people.
Your name, email and bio.
Who you are connected to.
What you link to.
All the applications you sign into through twitter like Klout.
How often you tweet, when, and what days.
The topics you tweet about.
Who clicks on your links.
Who you interact with.
Who and what you mention.
They’re Not That Into You
Search engines, internet companies and social media sites don’t really care that much about who you are as an individual. They aren’t really stalking you.
Some of the data is personalized and actually connected to your name or email. Some of it is just connected to your computers IP address. You are just one of millions of accounts that they are collecting data about. The analytics department at Google doesn’t really care about who you are dating, whether you look drunk in the conference photos, or how many cats you have.
First, these companies are trying to improve their products and your user experience. By figuring out how you use their sites, they try to make it better for you. That way, you’ll continue to use it.
Then, they are also looking for patterns and how to match your information with ads from the companies, politicians, and interest groups that pay them for advertising. This is how Facebook and Google can provide you with free services.
Some companies, like Twitter, are also selling the data to other companies so that they can also figure out how to sell you things.
But with so much information available, it isn’t hard to imagine how governments, law enforcement, insurance companies, your ex, hackers, and crooks might be interested in knowing what you are up to. And that is where important privacy issues arise.
Next, we’ll look at privacy rights and legal issues.
Here are some great articles about how data is being used, and what people are trying to figure out by looking at it:
How Companies Use Your Secrets by Charles Duhigg, NY Times, Feb. 16, 2012
How Companies Are Using Your Social Media Data by Leah Betancourt, Mashable, Mar. 2, 2010
Data Mining: How Companies Now Know Everything About You by Joel Stein, Time Magazine, Mar. 10, 2011.