The holiday shopping season is a common time for artificial intelligence to be busy tracking your online and mobile activity. With every search for the perfect present and with every purchase, you’re divulging personal information about yourself, your family and friends to the Internet and this can data can be used against you later on down the track if you’re not careful.
t’s not even the information you consciously give up – such as your name, age and email, either. Every second your cursor hovers over a book title, predictive analytics is computing data about your habits, desires, thoughts, fears and concerns. Every gift that’s outside of your normal interests, now indicates an important relationship in your life, which is used to build an even more accurate profile on you.
Predictive analytics is a type of artificial intelligence companies use in an effort to define you for marketing purposes. This could all change at any time and the disclosures are never clear. For example, last week Life360, an app which lets parents track where their kids are, was reported for selling location data of its users, which includes children. Unfortunately this type of thing is more common than you’d think.
The risk that children’s data will be sold grows each time family members shop for children online. It’s the same as for an adult, except the child did not check yes to the Cookies or dense user agreement. Privacy Parent, a resource for family data privacy, likens the privacy problem to climate change: your actions today will impact your children more than yourself.
Marco Bellin, the founder of Privacy Parent and Datacappy, a VPN and private browser, explains that “digital spoofing” mechanisms like a Virtual Private Network (VPN) will hide a user’s identity. With a VPN, a user can easily search for products, interests and concerns without feeding the artificial intelligence machine about themselves or loved ones.
VPN app downloads are up and it’s no surprise. In 2021, popular holiday presents and e-commerce sites were in the news all year for giving up user data, including Peloton, Amazon and, with the news of Life360 comes speculation about bluetooth tracker company Tile, which it purchased in November.
So, here’s a list of precautions you should take to make your online shopping safer this Christmas:
- Do not link contacts: This is how companies know who you know. They will serve them ads for similar products based on your affiliation with those people.
- Do away with voice assistants: If you use voice assistant products such as Siri, Google Assist or Alexa, your conversations may be recorded and mined for information.
- Use a fake name to register: You can use different names for apps and website logins to throw off the trail of your profile. It’s also a good way to reveal which companies sell your data. You may just find junk mail addressed to that fake name.
- Skip the login through Google or Facebook: This gives the company access to additional info they would not have otherwise.
Taking these actions protects the personal data you consciously give away by habit. Using a VPN will reinforce this protection, plus take care of the data you do not realise is being taken.
The nostalgia of privacy and hiding holiday gifts
VPNs can restore the holiday spirit too. Because of the way the Internet tracks and affiliates people, their devices and online behaviours, it can be nearly impossible to surprise family members with a gift. Several friends have shared stories with me about searching for a present for their kids only to have their kids say: “Hey, I just saw this in an ad. I want it for Christmas!”
Predictive analytics will only improve, and privacy will become a nostalgic concept — right along with the ability to keep holiday gifts a surprise. But not unlike how you would find a better hiding spot for gifts ahead of the holidays, the tips above are clever “hiding spots” for your personal data.
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