Your data is being mined and sold!


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Let’s assume that you’ve visited Walmart three times in the last week. The first time you bought a couple of steaks, a bottle of wine, some fresh vegetables and a few other household items. On your second visit, it was perhaps a similar shopping list with salmon replacing the steaks, and on the third visit maybe, you bought a few video games for your 11 year old. Further, you decided to have a drink at the bar next door, while your wife shopped for girls-wear.

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Your data is being mined and sold!

  1. 1. Your datais beingmined andsold!
  2. 2. Let’s assume that you’ve visited Walmart three times in the lastweek. The first time you bought a couple of steaks, a bottle ofwine, some fresh vegetables and a few other household items. Onyour second visit, it was perhaps a similar shopping list withsalmon replacing the steaks, and on the third visit maybe, youbought a few video games for your 11 year old. Further, youdecided to have a drink at the bar next door, while your wifeshopped for girls-wear. Would you be shocked if we told you thatthe chances of your activities being filed and stored away on dataservers are today very, very high. If you think that only curiousneighbors and nosy in-laws are interested in what you are doing,make no mistake, personal data has today become the mostsought-after commodity for marketers. Your life is no more asprivate as it once used to be as data mining is on the rise.This is pretty much thanks to the multiple devices we allconstantly use, especially our pet tablets and smartphones.Actually, to be precise, it is the GPS and geo-location based datatracking systems installed on our devices and the apps we trustand use on a daily basis. Wherever you are and whatever it isyou’re doing, everything is being recorded and accounted; whatyou buy, what you eat, where and how often you eat, is all part ofthe big data explosion that every marketer is greedily eyeing thetreasure trove of information that this poses. It has gotten so out ofhand that data tracking apps are now being advertised and you arebeing encouraged to spy on the people close to you instead oftrusting them.If you think this is outright creepy, make a start by getting awareof the invasion your privacy is being subjected to.
  3. 3. How?Your device is being manipulated for data miningThose pesky ads that keep cropping up on your smartphone everytime you open an app are just one of the ways to get yourinformation out. Most of these apps are disguised as textnotifications, pop ups and even app icons. These sneaky servicesare even capable of changing your browsing settings andbookmarks, whereby they are able to upload your contactinformation to an ad network’s server.Once your data has been extracted, it is sold off to marketers –that’s when you get those almost stalker like phone calls andmessages regarding various offers and deal. From then on, it’s avicious cycle. These kind of malicious services are morecommonly used in free apps rather than the paid ones. A recentstudy conducted by testing 384,000 apps showed that 19,200 usedsuch malicious ad networks. However, it doesn’t mean paid-forapps are above board in this matter.Your trusted apps reek of betrayal!It is true that most paid apps do not use malicious ad networks orextract data from your smartphone. They do something even morerepulsive: Track your every move. A study conducted by a coupleof researchers at MIT – Fuming Shih and Frances Zhang, threw upsome shocking facts about some of the most commonly used apps.People swear by Google Maps but Shih and Zhang’s researchfound that Google Maps continues to gather location data even
  4. 4. after you have closed the app and even if your device is on idle.Since Google Maps is revered around the world for its pin-pointaccuracy, it becomes even easier to track you. They know whereyou are going, what you are doing and at what time of a particularday. And this is just the start of the list, even the most popularsmartphone game in the world, Angry Birds, is no different.The list done by these MIT researchers contains a total of 36applications including text-messaging apps, photography apps andinstant messaging services. They also found that these apps arecapable of tracking everything from location information tocontacts and even your web history.Data tracking software is hardwiredYou would think that they can only track you out in the open butthat is simply not true. Apple uses Skyhook for geo-locationinformation and this program has the ability to track and profileevery single device that is fitted with this program via Wi-Fi.While the official Skyhook line is that it cannot recognize orprofile people, however today, where our devices are closer to usthan our own hearts, it could well become capable of doing so anytime. There are about 100 million devices fitted with Skyhook.They can accurately predict which is the busiest and mosthappening location at any given time of the day. Since in the US,most of the devices have Wi-Fi turned on most of the time, it’spretty much a cake walk for them to track and profile you.Then there is the new service by Navizon called IndoorTriangulation System or ITS. It lets people track others indoors aswell, which used to be quite hard earlier. The fact is that ifsomeone knows where you are, they will also know what you are
  5. 5. doing and what you have bought. The prolonged tracking leads topatterns and that’s how you can be profiled and spied uponwithout much difficulty.Why?It’s all economicsWhile we are all addicted to free products, free services and justabout anything that comes with the word ‘free’ attached, we needto realize that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Thedevelopers creating free apps invest huge amounts of capital andman hours to develop an app. So how do they get returns on thatinvestment? Easy. They rely on their apps becoming popular anduse them to get personal data from your devices so that it can besold to marketers. Once the data is analyzed and a buying/usagepattern emerges from the data, the marketers know what you doand what you like. Depending on that, you are sent messages andcalls on products and services they think you might use and buy.For example, the ITS service provided by Navizon will track youwhen you are in a mall or a particular building via Wi-Fi. Yes, itcan even be useful if you want to locate a particular shop and lookfor the best deals around but do be aware that you arecompromising your privacy in the bargain.Data tracking is a legal gray areaOne of the reasons that firms use such invasive techniques forprofits is that because they can. There are no black and white legalguidelines when it comes to online privacy. Cyber laws and digital
  6. 6. guidelines are still nascent territory. Online businesses regardaccumulation of personal data as the very backbone of onlineadvertisement business. The lack of a legal guideline protectingthe customers enables firms to blatantly extract data from devicesusing data tracking services and software. Moreover, most firmsdo not even disclose the kind of data they are accumulating frompeople because the law doesn’t compel them to do so.What can you do?There’s not a whole lot you can do, as it is a gray area from a legalperspective. However, you can definitely increase your levels ofawareness, warn people you know of these practices and raise astink via public channels and social media.First up, you can become aware of how data mining works. Thefact that you are reading this means that now you already have afair idea what you are up against. Read blogs by PC World andthe New York Times. Moreover, read books like The FilterBubble and Consent of the Networked that help you understandthe loss of privacy in the digital world and how it has made datamining and tracking so easy.Second, when it comes to apps, make it a point to read the fineprint. Scrutinize the detailed terms and conditions of the apps youdownload. If something feels not quite ‘right’, don’t download theapp at all.Third, keep your location services switched off at all times whennot in use. If you need to use them, switch them on for that period.Don’t always take the easy way out – if you want to find a
  7. 7. restaurant, search online or ask a friend. Try to avoid the ease ofuse app option, until absolutely necessary.Four, it might also be a good idea to install security software thattells you when apps go rogue. There are some good apps andsoftware available that will help protect your smartphone from theclutches of the data mafia. If you have the iPhone, Lookout is oneof the best options you have. It notifies you every time you accessan unsecured Wi-Fi network or attempt to download a maliciousapp. If you are the Android purist, download Whisper Monitor appwhich will encrypt your data and prevent apps and other programsfrom accessing it. (By the way, even on your MacBook, there’sLittle Snitch that you can use.)Five, advocacy is the most powerful tool that you can harness.Most people don’t know anything about the data mining nexusthat exists. Spread the word among friends, family, colleagues andneighbours. Get together like-minded people and explain what’shappening. Write to app developers who have created nosy apps.Get on to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter,LinkedIn and Pinterest to spread awareness of how apps track andmine data. Write to your local government representative, yoursenator, your governor and even the President, if you feel stronglyabout this issue. Since no clear and stringent legal guidelines existon this issue, the only one who can raise a voice against thisgrowing menace of data tracking is you.Of course, this means effort and a lot of research. However,remember it’s your life and your data and your privacy that isbeing breached. Shouldn’t you be concerned?