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Somebody's Watching You

A lot has changed since Rockwell’s paranoid-infused “Somebody’s Watching Me” lyrics gave voice to fear that our every move is being watched. Today, technology advancements have put a new slant on that paranoia. Most of us wouldn’t be so cavalier as to leave our credit card or social security number lying around in public, but have you given thought to how technology is compromising your privacy? The technology we use every day – connecting with friends on Facebook, chatting with colleagues and clients via instant messaging applications or downloading music, white papers and other content – can all be used to monitor your behavior online. This private information is also being stored and sold, often without you ever knowing about it.

According to a large-scale study of consumer attitudes toward behavioral targeting conducted by researchers at UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, 68 percent of Americans “definitely would not” allow advertisers to follow them online even if their online activities would remain anonymous. 19% “probably” would not allow this tracking.

However, online-tracking is happening – and it’s big business. Companies like RapLeaf are building databases on people including household income range, age range, gender and age of children in the household, as well as interests in topics such as religion, tobacco, and adult entertainment. They are also tapping voter-registration files, shopping histories, and social networking activities.

In the past, companies eased people’s privacy concerns by claiming not to record their real name, addresses (home and e-mail), or credit card numbers in their database. Instead, they assigned an individual ID number and placed it in a cookie file on the computer hard drive, using that number to identify an individual’s data in the database. That is now changing as identifying details are often being transmitted, and enabling companies to link this information back to a person’s real name.

For companies building dossiers of their prospect and customer’s activities and interests, they tout the ability to create a more personalized experience for their customers. That may not be enough benefit to outweigh the risks for individuals who are reluctant to have their online and offline lives documented for marketing purposes.

While the fear of big brother watching might have been a healthy case of paranoia just twenty years ago, today it is the reality. Your online activity is being watched. And, it’s not just being watched by companies whose sites you visit. Your data is also being tracked via third-party entities as well. A seemingly innocuous visit to Dictionary.com will install north of 150 cookies on your computer – all without warning. As tracking companies continue to use new technology to track an individual’s online behavior, and as more marketers buy information about your online activities, it’s now more important than ever to think about and monitor your digital footprint and take steps to protect your Internet privacy.

What can you do to make it more difficult for others to use your information without your permission?

  • Most browsers have sophisticated privacy features. Make sure you upgrade to the latest version of your browser available.
  • Regularly monitor privacy settings on sites such as Facebook and Twitter and ensure yours are set on the strictest setting.
  • Check for updates on privacy policies on the sites you routinely visit.
  • Check and delete all cookies on a regular basis (If you don’t use your browser’s auto-fill feature, be sure to memorize passwords or put them in a safe place) and block third-party cookies.
  • Sign up for services to track the trackers and gain insight into your own online behavior and how you’re being watched.

As online-tracking continues to gain steam, it’s critical to think about Internet privacy and do what you can to protect it. Some may say it is human nature is to be paranoid that someone is always watching you, but when it comes to your online activity, having a healthy dose of paranoia is critical for protecting your privacy.