“You have zero privacy anyway,” Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy famously said in 1999.  “Get over it.”  More recently, a story came out about a father who angrily called a manager at Target, reaming him out over the phone that it was completely inappropriate for the company to send his teenage daughter coupons for diapers, formula, and breast pumps.   Two weeks later, he apologized to the manager at Target saying, “there were things going on in my house that I didn’t know about.”  Yup, his daughter was preggers.  College students, like new moms, are marketers’ favorite snack because we are forming the shopping habits we’ll have for life.

How did Target know?  According to the New York Times article that broke the story, several factors come into play.  Some you can’t change—you probably won’t, for example, switch to using only cash instead of credit cards—but there are simple steps you can take to make it harder for them to get this information.  The little bit you can do is crucial—stores like Amazon have been known to redline customers based on their recent purchases on other sites.  When you go to Amazon, a cookie is deposited onto your computer, which assigns a unique I.D. to your browser.  When you return to Amazon, that cookie reports back to Amazon.com (and their subsidiaries AND whoever they sell that information to) every site you’ve been on since and information about your activity there.  Amazon can then turn around and say, overcharge you for a luxury item because your shopping habits show that you are willing to pay full price for items.  It’s slimy, but not illegal unfortunately. “Third-party” cookies (that is, cookies that come from someone other than the web site you accessed directly) aggregate and correlate information about your visits to apparently unrelated sites.  Paranoid yet?   If you want a really good scare, turn off all the lights and play “Every Breathe You Take.”  Creepiest song ever written, am I right?

What You Can Do:

Turn off cookies in your browser.  You’ll lose a small amount of functionality (you won’t stay signed into your favorite sites) but for many that’s a small price to pay for a modicum of privacy.

Use 10minute mail.  Sometimes when you want to access a site, say a shopping website, it forces you to sign up and verify with a working email.  Cha-ching!  They can link all sorts of information to you with your email address because chances are, your login is connected with your email address for various other sites.

Install Ghostery, which detects and disables Javascript trackers.  Never heard of ‘em?  They work a lot like cookies, but instead of depositing information on your computer, it sends queries to your browser to ask where you’ve been.  They are ONLY used for analytic purposes, and serve no functionality to you whatsoever.  Ghostery is a free add-on for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox.

Just because you can, install AdBlock to get rid of all ads in your browser, including Gmail ads that are (creepily) tailored to the content of your emails.  It’s that easy.


I’m reading Racial and Ethnic Groups: Census Update