Everybody knows they’re being followed online. The searches you make, the links you click, the emails you send, and even the porn you look at are all data points owned by the corporate entities you’ve signed away your life to.
You don’t need to be worried about Angelina Jolie in a pixie haircut typing away furiously on a keyboard. You need to be worried about all the places you complicity allow into your life.
It takes just a few clicks and a short waiting period to gain access to the ads API on your choice of social platforms. Once in, you can query away to your heart’s content at the targeting data they make available. The data there ranges from “best guesses” to hard facts, and you’ve volunteered it to be used in exchange for the free services provided to you.
The first thing you should know is that nothing is free. If someone offers you a free lunch, you should be as skeptical of them as Lady Diana was of Camilla Parker-Bowls when they met up for lunch before her wedding to Prince Charles.
There is always an ulterior motive. That goes for online services as much as it does for lunches with your betrothed’s ex.
For the last couple of years, most people have become more aware of cookies thanks to the banners that the EU has forced upon any site that plans to use them. While their use can be as simple as letting a website remember who you are and keep you logged in, it is true that they can be used to track you from site to site.
When combined with the voluntary date you give services by liking and commenting on things, logic can combine all the data points in interesting ways.
In 2015, while working for Insightpool in Atlanta, I remember walking into the engineering room and out lead product owner asking for my Twitter user name. I told him I’ve been @schwegler on Twitter since 2007, and he turned away from me for a moment to consult a tool we had been allowed to preview from an analytics company.
When his chair swiveled back around, he recited to me my home address, a recent phone number, and that I was interested in the requirements for a COPD carer.
Data points from across the Internet scraped and correlated together to inform someone about things I would rather them not know. And all of this on offer to anyone willing to pay the subscription price to give their marketing company an edge in targeting campaigns.
This was far from my first encounter with tech intruding into our private lives. Before it was shuddered by our parent company, Tegna, I had worked for the social media advertiser BLiNQ Media.
As a software engineer, it’s important for you to test things, and at a Facebook advertising partner, that meant testing out queries against real data in the console. A thing that is not distinctly scary on its own. We could only see the number of targets given certain inputs after all.
How many gay people are in Atlanta? Are there any homeowners in Sheboygan looking into having children? How many parents of young children in Albany, GA might be interested in shopping for a Nintendo Switch this holiday season?
In theory, the targeting data only returns the number of “who”s for the given “what” that you throw against it. But we know that any large set of data is far from anonymous.
In 2006, AOL had a large amount of “anonymized” search data released. In their intellectual pursuits, institutions were able to take this data that had not attached user info and combine that data to be able to guess exactly who was doing the searching.
You see, unfortunately, humans are pretty adept at giving ourselves away with our habits and patterns. So, “anonymized” data becomes like a love letter that you have taken a sharpie to the signature line on. Given a few handwriting samples and enough of these love letters, and we will know exactly who you are.
If you are looking for a company like BLiNQ Media or Insightpool to be afraid of, I have some terrible news for you.
First, the amount of effort that it would take to compile and analyze enough of the available data to pinpoint you and your activities is currently greater than it’s worth.
And, perhaps way more worrisome, social media companies have been moving in the direction to rid the market of third-party companies when it comes to brokering the data for marketing and advertising campaigns. They would much rather keep it all in-house.
Tegna shut down BLiNQ while I was working there in 2015 and InsightPool is no more than a glorified, managed version of Hoot Suite.
Are people still out there compiling the date to glean someone’s physical person from their digital one? Certainly. But, you shouldn’t be afraid of them. Twitter, Facebook, and any other company that’s offering you a free lunch in exchange for your data and your viewing of a few ads had already linked up those data points in a way that makes it much more potent and dangerous.
Being afraid of them at this point is a little silly, though. They already know who you are. They already know what you like. They already know where you are. You’ve given it all to them for free.