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Every move you make

eyesA lot of the information that is gathered from public records.  When you buy or sell a home, it becomes part of the public record.  Marriages, births and deaths are also part of the record.  If you name appears in the news or on a blog, then it can be collected.

Also, we share a good deal of information as part of loyalty programs, contest entries or through other applications for services.  Private companies can sell this information to DMs and these can be collated with the public records.      Effectively, the DM links the people to the data.  For example, a customer of store loyalty program will not necessarily have the exact name as other public records.  He may be listed as Bob instead of Robert.  So, the DM have to match up the records, usually by correlating phone numbers, addresses and the like.

The information is then assembled into large databases.  Acxiom (one such DM) estimates that it has data on upwards of 100 million Americans.  Acxiom is also introducing ways for people to review and limit the data that it keeps.  This may be the first step in allowing the industry to be more transparent.  In the end, the consumer wants to feel confident their choices and not manipulated by the data.

So, the first step is to understand what control you have over your information.  This doesn’t mean you can remove everything that has been collected, but you can certainly begin reducing what they collect and how.

Next, it’s important to understand how they technically obtain the bits and pieces of information from your email, text messages, postings, browser and mobile apps.  All of these sources contain valuable content that can be analyzed to obtain useful behavioral information.  Once you basic habits can be categorized, you become a valuable commodity for the types of products and services that your grouping.  In addition, your habits can be analyzed to understand more about the best ways and times to reach you.

Finally, there is information about you offline that is collected.  Although much of it is public, you can limit your exposure but being more careful with the type of information that you provide.

Free Email Accounts

If you use a free email account, such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL or the other providers, you grant these companies permission to use your content and meta data (such as the recipients and cc’s) for their business purposes.  They do this by analyzing your content to service their advertisers.  Google explains this in their terms and conditions:

Google does not rent, sell or share information that personally identifies you for marketing purposes without your express permission. No email content or other personally identifiable information is provided to advertisers.

The key concept here is “personally identifiable” data.  So, although you will not be identified explicitly, your anonymized information will be used and rented.  This covers your outgoing email, but not necessarily your incoming email which was written by another party. Other email services follow similar guidelines.

To what extent is the information anonymized and just how easy is it to de-anonymize it has been studied.  Depending on the steps that are taken, you can still be identified.  See below.

Your content and the content of the email you read contains a lot of information that can be analyzed.  All of the analysis occurs without human intervention.  Again, this is to protect your privacy, but that said,

Browsers

Every time you go surfing on the web, either at your desktop or on your mobile device, you leave bread crumbs which can be gathered by interested third parties, referred to as trackers.  Trackers fall into two (2) board categories:  advertisers and traffic analyzers.  The advertisers want to profile the sites you visit to better understand your buying and viewing habits.  The traffic analyzers will pay close attention to the amount of time you spend and how you arrived at a page.

There are different forms of these bread crumbs.

  • Cookies.  The most notorious of these breadcrumbs are cookies.  Cookies are placed on your hard drive, in a unique location for each user who shares your computer.  Only the site that places the cookie onto your computer can view it.  This, in theory, should prevent one site from sharing information with another.  But, marketing firms and data collectors get around this by having a third party site actually place the cookie.  So, if you go onto GoingMobo.com site, the administrators of the site may want to analyze your activities, so they may have a Google Analytics cookie placed on your drive.  Google actually places it from their domain.  So, although goingmobo.com cannot read the cookie itself, its administrations can later go to Google and recover information from everyone who visited your site.
  • Pixel Tags.  In much the same way, pixel tags download a single invisible pixel to your browser or to your email in HTML format.  Much the same way you can download images from a any site in your web page, the pixel tag has Javascript code associated with it.  This code can do any number of things, but essentially it will utilize cookies to collect information on the browser being used, including the IP of the computer and other useful information gather by the web page.  Most web pages already have information about how the browser got to where it is.  For example, using what are called CGI environmental variables, it knows what site referred you to the page you are on.  It can figure out your username in many cases and which browser you are using.  So, a lot of information.  Yahoo describes just how its done on their site.
  • Plug-in Cache.  Many plug-in’s such as Adobe Flash Player also collect data from the sites you visit.  Much like cookies, they are stored on your computer and only accessible by the plug-in’s themselves and only from the sites that collected the information.  Yet, to prevent or delete this information, a user needs to follow a different set of steps.
  • Location Information.  If you are on a mobile device while browsing, the web page may be equipped with code to read your location.  With most browsers, this information is protected and you are usually warned.  But knowing where you are at any given moment is very useful for marketing products and services to you.  For example, if you are close to a supermarket and part of their loyalty program, they can offer you coupons on items that you use regularly.  What better way to lure you in to shop.

With these tools,

Searches

When you search the web for information, your searches are saved by the major search engines.  The reason of course is that you may be searching for the very products that companies want to sell you.  This makes any marketing for those items more apt to generate sales.  Marketers love this type of information.  These companies include Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, AOL and others.

Not only do the search companies have the searches, but they have captured your IP address and other useful tidbits of information.  This can be assembled by a savvy DM and resold.  With the launch of IPv6, the number of internet addresses have increased by four billion.  This means every device connected to the web can have its own IP address.  Since both browser and search tidbits are associated with IP information, this becomes a handy way to track your behavior across all of your mobile devices.

This search information is kept for varying lengths of time.  It is one thing to stoke the marketing engines with valuable user information, but quite another to keep this information for extended lengths of time, as this begins to build extensive profiles.  The EU has put in place time limits (currently at six months as set by the Article 29 Working Group).  Microsoft is modifying Bing to comply and other search engine companies will need to follow suit.

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