The Impossibility of Digital Privacy

Joe Mineo
August 9, 2019

As you land on this website and read these words, please know that ChatterBlast isn’t collecting your personal data. However, Google probably knows your IP address, your habits, your gender, your age, and your affinities. Facebook has learned over time what things you’re interested in, LinkedIn knows where you work and how long you’ve worked there, Twitter knows whether you like dogs or cats, and Amazon knows what brands you’re shopping for. Apple knows how you’re going to pay for it and how long it’ll take you to get to the store. Lastly, dozens of companies will charge very, very little to use all of this data to serve you advertising, even your credit card companies and the credit bureaus they report to, like Equifax.

You probably already knew this. If you didn’t, get ready for a rollercoaster of a blog.

I walked into work on Monday, July 29th, and was prompted by my coworkers to watch a brand new Netflix documentary called The Great Hack’. It explores the rise and fall of Cambridge Analytica, a company that will forever be synonymous with Facebook’s flawed advertising privacy rules that led to massive regulations like GDPR and massive fines to turn things around. As a casual fan of documentaries and an avid fan of the inner workings of advertising and analytics, I began the film.

Prepare to be a little freaked out.

Without spoiling too much, the movie centers around the 2016 election and how Cambridge Analytica (CA) collected data – a LOT of data – on tens of millions of Americans to help the Republican Party win the presidency. The film highlights how CA used a simple survey app to collect this data, fooling people into thinking it was a harmless personality assessment, and used it all to bombard them with political ads. Yes, this was highly unethical.

In truth, everything CA did outside of this was legal, but the part that breached the law was using the nefariously-obtained data for marketing. This exposed huge flaws in Facebook’s advertising practices, which has led to lots of changes, including something called ‘Off- Facebook Activity’.

Screenshot from Facebook

Off-Facebook activity is defined as any activity leveraging Facebook’s data tools connected with a business’s website. For example, if you see an ad for Nike sneakers and click on it, you’ll most likely be directed to Nike’s website that sells those shoes. Nike may be using Facebook’s pixel or SDK, which are tools that collect anonymous data about a user, such as their user ID number. These tools allow a company like Nike to target you later on for more marketing campaigns, since your activity implies that you’re interested in the brand or product. Facebook will soon allow you to see all the websites that are using their data tools, and allow you to turn off any or all of those sites’ tools, making it harder for them to serve you ads.

You vs. That Nike Ad for the next 30 days without Off Facebook Activity

This may seem like a great thing, but there’s an important question to ask yourself.

Since sites like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and so forth are free and driven by advertising, would you rather see ads that you’re interested in and make sense to you, or would you rather see completely irrelevant ads that you’ll never interact with? How much would you be willing to pay – per platform – to do something as simple as talk, share photos and watch videos all day? If you clear all of your interest data, lock all of your privacy settings and purge all accounts, which is a tremendous undertaking, will it all be worth it? Is it actually possible to own and distribute your data with full control?

The internet is not a naturally private place. Every smartphone that has GPS enabled will collect location data (that you can purge) to help with some type of service at some point, such as finding directions to a new restaurant. Data companies already have contracts set up with manufacturers to share this data for advertising, including Facebook. When you sign up for an email address, they ask for your birth date to ensure you’re over the age of 13, which is how they know how old you are. As mentioned previously, unless you live on cash, each swipe you make at the supermarket is tracked by credit companies to help you better understand your own spending habits, but to also help businesses know how much they’re making and how to better advertise to make more money. TV and cable companies have been doing this for decades. I could go on and on about how much data is being collected on a daily basis, but the truth is that digital privacy is practically impossible… for now.

Super uncomfortable, right?

If you’re feeling weary, here are a few things you can do to help ease your mind. First, go ahead and lock all of those privacy settings. I’ve linked at the beginning of this blog how to perform that task for each of the popular social media, major tech and e-commerce websites. Second, turn off stored location data on your Android or iPhone. Next, know your data privacy rights. Each platform will let you in on how you’re being targeted, and you can most likely opt out of any advertising targeting methods that you don’t wish to be a part of.

Be advised that buying a car, house, boat, or using credit cards are automatic opt-ins, so you’ll need to consult with those companies on how to remove your information from their databases. Lastly, when it comes to any advertising, do your diligence. If you can’t find reviews, press, or content when searching around for a product or business that’s served you an ad, it’s probably best not to try to buy items from that business.

Breathe a sigh of relief, it’s not all that bad.

Although data privacy online may be impossible, it’s important to breathe and know that a vast majority of brands, businesses and agencies (like ours) are dedicated to ethical data collection and advertising to make sure both the end user and the advertiser are sharing a positive experience. Most companies just want you to buy something, which helps feed their families. We may never know who the next Cambridge Analytica will be, but being armed with knowledge can help better prepare you the next time you click on an ad.