This is a text-only version of an article that was initially published on my personal blog. To get the full experience, including interactive elements, go read it there.
Most of what’s happening on your computer is being tracked. That’s no secret, most people already know this. Yet, fewer people are aware of what type of data can be tracked and how can the data be used. Do you know how are you being tracked? Read till the end, there might be something surprising.
Chapter 1 — Online Surveillance
On average, only one in five people read the privacy policies of services they register for. So, most people might not be aware of what kind of data are companies tracking. Can we really call it consent if you have no idea what you’re consenting for? Although, this doesn’t seem to bother most of us. After all, if there’d be something bad going on, it would be all over the news, right? There’s a flaw in this reasoning though. Everyone has a different viewvue on what data they’re willing to share. What could bother you individually may not always be that kind of thing that’d surface as a headline in the media.
The only way you can decide whether you’re okay with giving consent is if you know exactly what’s being asked of you. Which means, what data are you giving away. Furthermore, what data can an app or a website actually collect without explicitly asking for your consent? There are certaincertaines things that are so fundamental to how the internet works that it might be difficult to opt-out. It’s alsoaussi not in the interest of internet companies (in most cases) to make it easy to opt out. Almost all of them are trying to gather as much data about you as possible so they can analyze it and see how they can influence your behavior. And that’s the game we’re all playing.
Now, of course, you can limit this using, say, a VPN. Which you can consider using if you value being geologically hidden. Or a browser extension that blocks tracking and/or ads. And I’d recommend using that if you want a safer default stateétat of browsing without any more hustle. Both of those will give you a certain amount of protection. People frequently use VPN to access contentcontenu that’s not available in their location. Meaning VPN serves usually for stripping geolocation from your digital fingerprint, not much else. And while browser extensions can be more effective when it comes to preventing tracking and data collecting. They don’t hide your location or other detailsdétails that could identify you. Both of those tools can be helpful, but only if you are aware of what protection they actually grant you. VPN won’t protect you from services spying on your activity. And ad blockers won’t protect you from being targeted on some of the fundamentals. Such as your location, preferred language, and many others.
One of the most powerful ways to track you is to see what you’re doing with your mouse on your screen. How you move your cursor, and what you click on. And it’s not even just about that. Because this data can be also aggregated. Initially, it’s not as easy to see how this can result in more information. You still have the same amount of data. So how is it different?
Let’s consider the following example. As you move your cursor across your screen. The website or the app you’re in can see exactly how you move it. Based on that, it can tell what you’re likely interested in and then later use that. On a touch screen, any website can even detect you’re scrolling with your right hand and not your left. Just because they took the coordinates of screen touches and aggregated it into a model that recognizes the slight differences in the interaction. And that’s a simple example. There are way more data points. Some may even indicate whether your device is lying still or is in your hand. That’s because most handheld devices these days have a gyroscope built-in. Imagine all the possibilities to aggregate all your information into, occasionally, very accurate guesses.
A lot of what internet companies know about you might not only be the data that you directly provide. Either continuously by filling out a form, or unconsciously by simply using your computer. All your activity can be used in one more nefarious way. By guessing why you’re doing what you’re doing. And guessing seems to be often underestimated when it comes to privacy. If a social media service lacks some data point about you. Let’s say whether you have children or not. They can proactively expose you to ads that’d reveal that information. (This is only theoretical, I have no proof that social media companies do or don’t do that. But it’s important to understand that there’s nothing preventing them from doing it). Therefore, they’d show you ads that only people with kids will be interested in. If you click or just hover your mouse over it, they can reasonably well assume that you might have children.
And using this concept, it should be possible to assume even more. By exposing you to more and more targeted content, a guess that you might be a motherune mère of at least two children, one boy, and one girl, stops seeming so wild. Or that you’re an ambitious young person interested in weight lifting and running, so they can recommend you a nice new pairpaire of shoes. This is why people are, at times, creeped out when they see an ad that’s targeted to a bizarre degree specifically at them.
Technology can be complicated. Your computer has many sensors. And your phonetéléphone has even more. Access to them may give away information you might want to keep secret. But once you understand this, you become one stepétape closer to being more conscious about it. Information is used for good, like improving user experience, but also for evil to work against you while pretending it’s working for you. Being aware of your privacy is crucial in the modern age. It’s one of the most crucial thingschoses you can learn about and stay on top of.
Chapter 2 — Interpersonal Surveillance
It’s not only companies that can track you and potentially misuse access to your data. Picture this. You’re enjoying a cup of coffee in a random coffee shop in Berlin. At the table next to yours, you notice someone is taking a picture of their food. They take a long time to get the picture right and that leaves you intrigued. Now let’s say you want to see that picture. Well, there might be a simple way to do so. There’s a chance the person will share the picture on their public Instagram. So you open the app, search for the coffee shop (or look up pictures taken in that particular area — Instagram allows this), and there it is. That’s the picture the other person took. Not only that, you now have access also to the name of the person, their other pictures, their friend’s pictures, and their names. You can suddenly see into a life of a complete stranger.
This is only an example. Not everyone uploads pictures of their food on Instagram and not everyone shares them right away. Or they don’t disclose location in their post. Then you wouldn’t find the picture, nor their public profile. And there’s also a chance that their profile would not be public or that they wouldn’t disclose any personal information in none of their posts. Still, there’s a good chance they would take a picture, share it publicly and disclose at least some personal info on their profile. There’s a good chance you do that without thinking.
Even if you don’t want to find that one particular individual sitting next to you. You can still go through many other public social media accounts and find so much it’ll send your head spinning by what people share. And the factle fait that people share it is not a problemun problème per se. It only may become a problem if they don’t realize that that’s what they’re doing or that everyone has access to this. Many people are aware and keep sharing because it’s important to them. And that’s good for them.
To some, this may soundson trivial. But with public posting usually being the default, it’s one of the easiest things to get wrong as a user. And therefore also one of the easiest to exploit.
Chapter 3 — Is There Any Way Out?
So, what to do about all this? How can you protect yourself from the grabby hands of companies and other individuals who mean harm? The answer is, it’s not that easy unless you understand what weapons are being used in the fight. Even if you’re okay with information being collected about you. (perhaps you like having personalized ads as it helps you discover new products you enjoy). It helps to be aware of what data exactly have advertisers access to. And what all other people may have access to. Then and only then you can decide what’s okay for you and what’s not. It’s a very personal decision.
For people in tech, this is a challenge already. For someone who is not particularly involved in technology, this becomes a near-impossible task. Yet, the only way out is to educate yourself about how things work. Which is not easy either, being a security guard on the internet is a job in itself. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to learn about these things because you live with them every day. You probably spend a big part of your day interacting with your phone or computer.
This article will, hopefully, help you to do the first step, or at least one additionalextra step, towards knowing more about this topic. And that’s what the last chapter is all about. So buckle up and serve yourself a snack seasoned with the truth.
Conclusion — The Final Twist
This is where Medium as a platform doesn't work for the intention of this article anymore. If you've read this article here on Medium till here, consider visiting the same article on my personal blog. Then you can either read it again (it may be slightly different), or scroll down to the final twist, read it, and explore for yourself. Have fun!