by Emilie Burke, Guest Contributor
When something is free, you are the product.
I have had to remind my neighbors of this just a little bit more often than usual today. With media coverage of Cambridge Analytica’s unethical data usage, Facebook’s cover-up, Instagram’s API shutting down, and the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) ramping up in the European Union, you cannot go too far right now without being reminded about data privacy.
The fact is that your data is being logged everywhere you go on the internet.
The more I discuss this issue with others, though, I am constantly shocked to find just how much misunderstanding there is in this subject.
Social media platforms, like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, make money through ad placements. These platforms are dependent on ad revenue for their business model. They get paid an amount to display an ad to you. Their ad placers feel validated when you buy from their ad, so they continue to advertise on the platform.
Search engines, like Google, Bing and Yahoo, also make their money through ad placements. In 2017, Google’s ad revenue amounted to almost $95.4 billion. The bulk of this ad revenue comes from Google AdWords, most known for the placement of ads above the results of your search, but AdWords also includes the recommendation of products you see throughout the Google ecosystem – from Gmail to Android, from Google Maps to YouTube, and all the Google in between.
Because search engines know what you’re searching for – well, you told them when you searched for it! – they’re positioned especially well to provide you with targeted ads throughout the internet. While there are many targeted ad networks, Google’s AdSense is the most popular.
You know that feeling of being followed by whatever you searched for on the internet? Well, you can thank Google AdSense for that.
Not all of the internet is revenue-driven, though. Spotify, for example, lets you opt-out of ads by paying for premium. Many content producers, like myself as a blogger, don’t have ads on our site, but that means we make money through other forms of revenue such as consulting, books or online courses.
E-commerce websites on the internet, such as those start-ups trying to sell you wool shoes or the next fidget spinner, have an incentive to advertise to you. These companies have a target customer acquisition cost, and that is how much they are willing to spend, on average, to get you to buy their product. For them, it is more cost-effective to have an ad follow you around the internet than it is for them to have someone call you.
Your Personal Data
Nothing on the internet is free, so when you’re not paying for the website or the service with your dollars, you are paying for it with your personal data. In my opinion, paying with your data is much more expensive.
This data is varied, but a lot of it you gave to the platforms. For example, when you filled out your Facebook profile, you likely told it where you live, your relationship status, your age, your education and career backgrounds, and your religious. Every status update, every check-in, every tagged picture adds context to the picture you are painting for Facebook about you.
Demographic data is just the beginning of the iceberg.
Preferences are what add the real depth to the data. For example, whether you use a browser or a mobile app to access search or social media, you are feeding companies information on your device. Use of iOS devices over Android devices is correlated with wealth. When you access whatever platform is collecting your data, it’s identifying what device you’re using and extrapolating more information based off that.
The more information it gathers, the more information you turn over, the more accurate a picture it can paint of you.
Changes You Can Make
I hope that I haven’t scared you. That certainly wasn’t my goal. Instead, I hope that by speaking in real-world applications, you understand exactly what is going on with the information you are sending through the internet. The good news is there are small changes that you can make TODAY to help make your data much more secure.
Change Your Search Tool
Most devices today come with Google as the default search engine. Instead, switch to Duck Duck Go. Taglined “The search engine that doesn’t track you,” Duck Duck Go doesn’t store your private information, doesn’t track you and doesn’t follow you around the web. Their revenue comes from a single ad in search listings related to the words you’ve searched for.
To really get the bulk of the impact, don’t just change this on your computer. Make Duck Duck Go the default browser on ALL of your and your family members’ devices.
Stop Using The Mobile Apps
For social media tools, such as Facebook and Instagram, try using the browser-based versions, even on mobile. When downloading mobile apps, you consent to all sorts of things, such as access to your location, microphone and camera, not always only when using the apps. The browser versions usually require more clear consent to gather your location, microphone and camera.
Change Your Passwords
I know that every time I’ve read something around passwords, my initial reaction has been to roll my eyes. Please don’t.
Real password control requires a two-step improvement. These changes don’t need to happen overnight, but together they will help you build a more secure online presence.
First, install and start using a password manager. I personally use 1Password, but well-known alternatives include Team Password and LastPass. Stop remembering your passwords and start storing them. In addition the brain space you’ll free up for yourself, you’ll feel less compelled to cycle 3 or 4 different passwords with an extra exclamation point or 1234 sequence. This will improve your new passwords going forward.
Second, as you log in to new platforms, change your passwords. If you’ve been using FIRSTBORNsecondchild1234 everywhere, it’s about time you cycle that into something more secure. As you login, slowly update your passwords to more secure options. You don’t need to remember them because in Step 1, we implemented a password management system.
This sounds like a lot but taken in small chunks it can be incredible useful. This will help secure your overall online presence. As a bonus, this will also help secure your financial information through more secure passwords.
Ghostery is a plugin for a web browser that allows you to block tracking on different web sites. Ghostery allows you to see what is tracking you on every page on the web, as well as block the trackers you’re not interested in. Installing it is as simple as installing any other plugin.
Ghostery has a mobile browser option that can be installed on Android and iOS devices.
When something is free, you are the product.
When signing up for a new app or account on a website, ask yourself “What is the underlying business model here?” If the answer is anything that makes you uncomfortable, you should reconsider signing up for that app or account.
I don’t plan on deleting my Facebook account anytime soon. With over a decade on Facebook, I have a decade of connections and pictures that I am grateful for. I am, though, conscious of what information I put out there. I never access Facebook on mobile and only use it in an incognito browser. Firefox has recently rolled out a Facebook container that limits Facebook’s access to information you do on other parts of the web. I haven’t tried it but it looks promising!
The fact is that the internet is still young. There are many issues that will appear as this industry matures. Nonetheless, the onus is on you as an individual to protect your data. This is incredibly more true as military families.
For some extra steps to make your online presence more secure, download this “Be More Secure Online” Template now!
Emilie is the brains, the brawn, and the beauty behind She Does Better, inspiring millennial women to live financially, physically, and professionally fit lives. She writes about overcoming debt, while balancing trying to eat healthy, stay fit, and have a little fun along the way. She is a politics major turned data engineer who graduated from Princeton University in 2015. She lives in Georgia with her college sweetheart. She enjoys eating food, reading memoirs, cuddling with her dog, and binge watching HGTV.