Friday, February 28, 2014

Digital Footprints - stealing your identity or saving you money?


Do online security settings actually help your privacy – at what cost to you?

 A person’s digital footprint is developed and grown exponentially as we turn to digital means for commerce, communication, entertainment.  Digital footprints as noted by Wikipedia are typically classified as active and passive. Active footprints are created where we have an account. A passive footprint is when your browser or device is remembered, without explicit direction from you.   As consumers, we should control what is recorded about us whether active or passive. However, will this actually help or hinder what we want to accomplish online.
The seemingly small changes in our practices are being capitalized on by marketers using digital media trackers and tools for analysis.  Eventually we hear on the news (if you still watch broadcast tv) or read on your favorite news site that your privacy may be at risk with the social media app update.  Just as the print media and propaganda of old, it is meant to elicit a reaction.  So hordes of people rush to their various accounts and do their best to lock down their private information.  We change settings, opt-out of offers, reduce our risk – or so we think.   Tracking our activity online has been around as long as the World Wide Web has been around. Almost all electronic devices have logs; the difference now is companies are finding ways to make those logs of our seemingly random activities.  Whether we are trying to see the weather, buying diapers or emailing our grandmother – that information is useful to someone.  For me, the scary part is someone is willing to pay for that information.  But what is the actual risk?  If we are shopping online for diapers is it a bad thing that the site search engine we used to find Pampers keeps a record of that.  When we look at product reviews on Amazon, do we care that diapers show up 2 weeks later as a suggested product perhaps because the cost has actually dropped?

Companies want to sell you something be it goods or services, and we go to companies because we want something. Yet, we consider information gathering online as being victimized by those companies.  The EU has said that some of this type of tracking is indeed wrong and forcing companies to put a notice to all website visitors[i] – we want to know who you are and want to track your activities.  When you visit your regular gas station, the market closest to your home or favorite restaurant you surely notice patterns of employees and likely have favorite servers or checkers who in turn get to know you and how you like to do business with them.  So why do people worry that the personalization you get from your local service providers is trying to be mimicked by your circle of online providers[ii]?  The issue seems to be in the sharing. If my favorite server at my neighborhood cafe knows how I like my eggs and what beverage I’m likely to order, that server isn't going to tell the gas station attendant.  But online, we can look up a new car and ads for that brand or perhaps even that exact car down to the color we spent the most time looking at may show up in banner ads on several different sites we visit afterwards.  Is it a detriment that the web can get to know us quicker, maybe better, than the people we interact with?  We want privacy, but we are also consumers and most of us have limited means.  Do we want to hunt for the best price by driving to multiple stores in a car or on public transit - or have a company offer up their best price while we do other random things online and have that shipped to us for free within 2 days? 
In reality, we are in control of our data.  For those paranoid about truly personal information being gleaned to allow hacks into their various accounts for devious purposes, no amount of protection seems enough.  If you don’t want to register your full name, DOB, mother’s maiden name with a  company – then don’t.  Could this limit your access to some online resources, absolutely.  It is not any sites fault that you posted you were on vacation, hints to your passwords or answers to common security questions on social media[i]. Computers can only regurgitate the inputs we give them.  Otherwise, this posting would have written itself and been better.  In the meantime, I’ll allow Ikea to remember the size of light bulb I needed. I may not tip the tracking cookie, but they’ll likely keep my business – and loyalty is all any company really wants from us.