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Whether we think about it or not, there’s an agreement at work behind the scenes when you visit some websites and use many popular apps. Call it the price of “free.” For every website visit and app use, you agree to give up certain personal data in exchange for whatever information or service you’re using.
The problem isn’t only that these activities are taking place, it’s that many apps or services are lax in clearly disclosing that they’re monetizing your personal data. And in many cases, doing so without your explicit approval. We’re automatically being opted in when we agree to Terms of Service and Privacy Policies. Even the most conscientious reader can struggle to make sense of those agreements and the data collection activities they describe.
So to help you stay on top of what’s being done with your data, we’ve dug through news about some popular and widely used apps and services to create this list of data trackers you might not be aware of.
1. Devices that are “always on” listen for voice cues open the doors for ultrasonic cross-device tracking, which uses high frequency audio signals—that you can’t hear—to track your online and offline behavior: “These ultrasound “beacons” emit their audio sequences with speakers, and almost any device microphone—like those accessed by an app on a smartphone or tablet—can detect the signal and start to put together a picture of what ads you’ve seen, what sites you’ve perused, and even where you’ve been.”
2. Professionals track when recipients open their emails to optimize sales and marketing opportunities. But it can be alarming when individuals install software that informs them when you open their personal emails without you being notified. One of the services explained how its tech works: “A small image pixel is attached to each email an individual elects to track…That pixel detects the subsequent activity of the recipient, and sends notifications to the original sender.”
3. Phone metadata created by calls and texts can reveal private information about you, like the status of your health. And, this information can be obtained without a warrant because it’s perceived that metadata doesn’t consist of sensitive information. But that assumption isn’t true: “From a small selection of the users, the Stanford researchers were able to infer, for instance, that a person who placed several calls to a cardiologist, a local drugstore and a cardiac arrhythmia monitoring device hotline likely suffers from cardiac arrhythmia.”
4. If you download popular free apps on your Android or iPhone, it’s respectively 73% and 47% likely that your personal information has been shared with third parties: “The third-party domains that receive sensitive data from the most apps are Google.com (36% of apps), Googleapis.com (18%), Apple.com (17%), and Facebook.com (14%).”
5. Tracking is no longer just about “cookies.” In a more sophisticated manner, your browser settings and battery levels are “fingerprinting” that is personally identifiable and trackable across devices. On how fingerprinting techniques work: “It turns out that websites as well as the hidden so-called third parties that track us online can ask your browser for the entire list of fonts or extensions that you've ever installed. And that list could be different from almost anybody else on planet Earth. And so that might present a nearly unique or completely unique fingerprint of your device that can help a website or a third-party tracker recognize you when you come back.”
6. Frequent Locations on your iPhone records your every move, and labels your assumed home and word addresses, unless you turn it off. The data only lives on your phone unless you opt in to sharing it with the company, where it gets stored anonymously. But, your data might not always remain private: “This stored smartphone data can be subpoenaed for both criminal and civil court cases, like divorce proceedings.”
7. There’s a database of all of your search activity that has been collected over the years. The information is used to improve services and offer people a more personalized digital experience. If that’s not ok with you, you can erase the data: “You can delete anything and everything from the My Activity page. Because Google does use your data to customize your Google experience, you may see a decline in the usefulness of some Google services if you delete a significant part of your activity.”
About the author
Alston Ghafourifar is CEO of Entefy