28 ways companies and governments can collect your personal data and invade your privacy every day

Win McNamee/GettyProtesters hold signs calling for privacy.

It’s devilishly difficult to keep anything private anymore.

As Wired pointed out, data is this century’s oil. Just as oil made corporations rich in the 20th Century, personal data is now making companies billions. And that comes at the cost of people’s privacy.

In modern life, privacy is relinquished in so many ways – from your daily commute, to how productive you are at work, to what you search on Google, to what you buy in a store. Almost nothing is truly private anymore.

But the concept is still important. As columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Privacy is connected to personhood. It has to do with intimate things – the innards of your head and heart, the workings of your mind – and the boundary between those things and the world outside.”

The New York Times’ “Privacy Project” looked into all the different ways people are losing their privacy. It’s a thorough, often bewildering examination.

Here are some of the ways companies and the government are invading your privacy every day.

Privacy is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “freedom from disturbance or intrusion.” Personal data can be anything from social security and bank account numbers to Instagram photos and Google searches.

Business Insider

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Wired

Make no mistake — this data is valuable. In 2018, American companies spent an estimated $US19 billion getting and analysing consumer data. Third parties known as “data brokers” collect the information and sell it.

ReutersData can include things like shopping preferences.

It’s sometimes hard to conceptualize where that data goes, but The Atlantic described the tracks they take as “invisible ‘supply chains'” that “create marketplaces out of behavioural data.”

When someone has a digital conversation or makes a purchase, that’s recorded. That record is shared with a third party, which can sell the data to another organisation.

Sources: Wired, Vice, Financial Times

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Centre for Digital Democracy, told the Financial Times that the data market had boomed so much there are now “privacy deathstars,” like Oracle and Nielson, which can supply hundreds of pieces of data on different people.

ReutersThe Oracle logo is shown on an office building in Irvine, California

Source: Financial Times

As author Shoshana Zuboff lamented to The Atlantic about the loss of privacy: “We are not the ivory. We are not what is poached. We are the carcass that is left behind.”

Till Rimmele/Getty ImagesShoshana Zuboff

Source: The Atlantic

Some people think the loss of privacy doesn’t matter, because they have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide. But Ben Wizner, a director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a legal adviser to Edward Snowden, argues that’s not the point.

Artur Widak / NurPhoto / GettyBen Wizner (Centre), Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU’s) Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, and legal advisor for Edward Snowden in 2016.

He told BBC: “For every single one of us, there is some pile of aggregated data that exists, the publication of which would cause us enormous harm and, in some cases, even professional and personal ruin. Every single one of us has a database of ruin.”

It’s important, too, because the more people who give up their privacy, the more normalized it becomes. This impacts people who do need security and privacy, including whistleblowers like Snowden.

Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty ImagesComputer security consultant Edward Snowden in connection from Russia during the Wired Next Fest 2019 at the Giardini Indro Montanelli on May 26, 2019 in Milan, Italy.

Source: Time

What data do companies want? According to The Guardian, it’s all about the details that will change spending habits, like having a baby, or trying to lose weight.

Getty Images

As Alex Preston explained for The Guardian, “Big life changes – marriage, moving home, divorce – bring with them fundamental changes in our buying patterns as we seek, through the brands with which we associate ourselves, to recast the narratives of our lives.”

The day of losing privacy begins at night, because even in our sleep, we’re likely to be providing data. For the Washington Post last year, Geoffrey Fowler discovered his iPhone sent data to a dozen different firms overnight. Mostly, it gave out his location and IP address.

Ute Grabowsky/Photothek / GettyA young woman is lying in bed looking at her smartphone on February 13, 2018

Apps that were giving his information to third parties included Spotify, the Washington Post, and IBM’s The Weather Channel.

You probably agreed to it when you signed the app’s terms and conditions. But these policies aren’t designed to be read by the general population. According to Time, to read every user agreement a person encounters annually would take 76 hours. When The New York Times read 150 of them, it called it “an incomprehensible disaster.”

ReutersOf the 150 terms and conditions, The New York Times analysed, one of the least accessible was Airbnb’s.

Of the 150 agreements that The New York Times analysed, by far the most accessible was the Craigslist’s, while Airbnb was at the other end of the spectrum.

After rising from bed, the rest of your morning routine might not be private if you live in a house or apartment that is accessed with pin codes, fob keys, or smartphones. The technology lets buildings collect data as residents come and go, and could show landlords daily patterns, like when you take your dog for a walk.

Robert Alexander/GettyA man walks his beagle along a residential street in London, England.

How much heat and electricity you use is also available for landlords in some smarthome systems, according to The New York Times.

Lots of people check their phone pretty early into their day. For new phones, if you can’t be bothered entering a passcode, facial recognition will open it for you. This is a trend, and it’s impacting privacy. Our faces are providing access to more and more places.

Chesnot/GettyA customer uses the new face-recognition software on the Apple iPhone X, the new model of Apple smartphone at the Apple Store Saint-Germain on November 3, 2017 in Paris, France.

Sources: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal

Police have about every other American face in a database. Airports are beginning to use facial recognition to make travelling more efficient. Delta Airlines and JetBlue are both testing using facial recognition to board planes at some airports.

Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe / GettyA passenger boarding flight 773 to Aruba uses JetBlue’s facial-recognition system at Logan Airport in Boston on Jun. 15, 2017.

Sources: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Wired

In 2015, Baltimore police used facial recognition to find people who had warrants out for their arrests during a protest over the death of Freddie Grey, who died in police custody. Those identified with a warrant out were arrested.

REUTERS/Bryan WoolstonDarius Rosebauth speaks into a megaphone as a demonstration begins after a Maryland judge declared a mistrial in the trial of officer William Porter in Baltimore, Maryland December 16, 2015.

Source: The New York Times

In another case in 2017, a man was caught on camera stealing beer from a CVS. The shot of him was blurry, but a detective thought he resembled Woody Harrelson, so he put a photo of Harrelson into the database and got a match, which led to a man being arrested.

Chris Jackson/GettyWoody Harrelson.

Not every US city is as intense. In 2019, San Francisco voted to ban police using facial recognition in the city, The New York Times reported.

Adam Schwartz, a senior attorney at Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal that the focus on facial recognition meant “we are heading into a world where the government, or a conglomeration of corporations, knows potentially everywhere you’ve been, who you were with and what you were doing all of the time.”

Daniel Berehulak/Getty ImagesA bank of television monitors displays images captured by a fraction of London’s CCTV camera network within the Metropolitan Police’s Special Operations Room on December 31, 2007 in London, England.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Once you’re on your phone, if you decide to check the overnight news, that will be tracked. News sites have quite a bit of advertising to support their business models, and your online footprint will be monitored.

New York Times

Source: The New York Times

See Insider Inc.’s privacy policy here to see what information we collect from you.

With a quick check of your emails, more of your personal data gets scooped up — and it’s a prime target for hackers. In 2013, 3 billion Yahoo email accounts were hacked. The Fourth Amendment protects what you write in your emails within the last six months, but not where you sent the email from.

Getty Images

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times

Operating within your own email inbox is no longer private. If you’re applying for college, your email etiquette could be monitored. Universities in the US are using data, such as the length of time an email is open and whether links are clicked, to work out the level of “demonstrated interest” from a possible new student.

Facebook/BUMedicineBoston University.

The universities include Boston University, Seton Hall University, and Quinnipiac University, according to the Wall Street Journal.

If you’re using Google Chrome, and want to make your searches private by turning on “incognito”, know that Google adds these private searches to the profile it has of you.

ShutterstockGoogle Chrome occasionally updates with bug fixes or new features.

Source: The Atlantic

Checking social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter will give the companies and third parties troves of data. That’s how they’re free — you’re paying with information. According to Forbes, Facebook has 2 billion active users. Every minute, users upload 50,000 photos to Instagram, and send 500,000 tweets on Twitter. Everything you post could help build a more cohesive data profile of you.


Sources: Wired, Forbes

If you’ve got some time to kill, maybe you download the latest viral app. Last year, FaceApp aged millions of peoples’ photos. The Washington Post found that the app sent information to Facebook and Google, as well as other undisclosed servers.


But CEO Yaroslav Goncharov told the Washington Post it only took the provided photo, and users didn’t need to give a name or email.

As Business Insider’s Ben Gilbert pointed out, this data collection was unfortunately fairly typical for most apps.

One pretty intense bit of data that’s now being monitored is the way we physically touch our devices. The way people press, scroll, and type is being tracked. Mostly, it’s to help banks fight fraud, but it also helps build profiles of people.

David Cliff/NurPhoto / GettyThe Royal Bank of Scotland started using the technology in 2016 for its wealthy customers but has since expanded to cover all of its accounts.

Source: The New York Times

Once you’re ready to leave your house, prepare to provide more data. If you drive to work or school in a new car, you could be driving what The New York Times called “essentially smartphones with wheels.” Vehicles can now track how much weight a driver puts on, how fast people drive, the routes they take, and the number of passengers in the car.

ReutersMorning commuters travel in rush hour traffic toward Los Angeles, California

The point of this is mainly to transmit maintenance and performance data to the car’s manufacturers. But it adds up. The New York Times reported that every hour of driving could be sending 25 gigabytes of data, according to a McKinsey report.

This information would be valuable to a number of different companies. Insurance firms, when deciding whether or not to provide coverage, could theoretically analyse a person’s braking, speeding, and seatbelt habits before making a decision.

If you drive pass a toll booth, your licence plate will be recorded. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority also tried, so far unsuccessfully, to identify drivers as they travelled over some New York bridges.

Jason DeCrow / APMotorists sit in heavy traffic while crossing the Robert F. Kennedy Triboro Bridge during the morning rush in the Queens borough of New York.

The Wall Street Journal reviewed internal emails in April 2019 and found the cameras had never successfully identified drivers.

Maybe you call an Uber. That app has your location data, personal, and banking information. Many drivers use cameras in their cars for safety and insurance reasons, and some passengers were deliberately recorded in Texas, Florida, and Tennessee in 2019 to help the company work on its disputes policies.

Robert Alexander/Getty ImagesUber.

Source: The New York Times

Opting to walk won’t help your privacy. Along with your phone or laptop’s GPS tracking your location, cameras are watching. In New York’s Lower Manhattan, for instance, police monitor 9,000 cameras.

Matt Dunham / APDuring the morning rush hour, people walk/

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times

Security technologist Bruce Schneier told Time that carrying a smartphone was like carrying a tracking device. Google Maps can remember where you go if you have your phone on you and save it to a Google Timeline.

Sources: The New Yorker, Time,PCMag

Once you’re at work, privacy varies depending on the company. According to CNBC, a Gartner 2018 survey found that 22% of workplaces around the world are monitoring employee’s movements, 17% monitor work rate on computers, and 16% monitor calendar data.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Source: CNBC

In some companies, privacy is dissipating for the sake of efficiency. For instance, Microsoft analyses data of its employees, looking into how often workers send chat messages, emails, or are in meetings, in order to try and maximise their output.

ReutersThe Microsoft sign is shown on top of the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles, California

Source: Wall Street Journal

If you need to buy something on your lunch break, even just walking into certain stores can notify retailers about your shopping habits, via Bluetooth and GPS. Bluetooth beacons are so accurate they can track you to within inches of where you are.

Associated PressIn this Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019, photo shows customers shopping in the shoe department at the Nordstrom NYC Flagship in New York.

Sources: Time,The New York Times

What happens is that the beacons emits messages, which are detected by apps on your phone, even if the app is closed. Recognising the beacon, the app sends data — like where in the store you spent the longest — to a company. These beacons are in places like malls, cinemas, gyms, and airports.

Getty Images

Source: The New York Times

Of course, if you order something online, that company would also have access to things like your name, shipping and billing addresses, payment information, and buying decisions. Amazon lets you turn your browsing history off, and delete any searches you’ve made in the past.

ScreenshotAmazon’s website in 2019.

Sources: Axios, Amazon

If you have a supermarket club card, your purchases could be analysed on that, too. Whatever you buy could be added to your profile, and would change advertising you see if you shop online. If you’ve bought baby wipes, you could end up seeing ads for new parents.

ReutersPeople queue to vote in the midterm elections in a supermarket in Houston

Even if you don’t use a club card, supermarkets can monitor how often a credit card is used to see how frequently you’re shopping.

After work, it could be date time. But if you’re dating through an app, that information could end up in a third party’s hands. In 2018, a Spanish researcher spent about $US180 to get 1 million people’s dating profiles from dating app Plenty of Fish. The package included 5 million photographs, as well as birthdays, zip codes, sexuality, and drinking habits.

Shannon Fagan/Getty Images

Source: Financial Times

If you attend a political protest and bring your phone, that’s could be recorded. Even if you wear a mask, anonymity is hard to attain. According to The New York Times, protesters can be tracked and recorded, and political parties are even starting to buy these phone locations.

REUTERS/Carlos BarriaA protester takes pictures of fellow demonstrators with his mobile phone as they block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, September 29, 2014.

Source: The New York Times

If you go to a concert, your face could be monitored to ensure you’re not stalking the performer. That happened during Taylor Swift’s 2019 Reputation tour. At her shows, fans went unknowingly into “selfie stations” and scanned to ensure they weren’t a threat.

Jun Sato/TAS18/Getty Images

Sources: Rolling Stone, The Guardian

Unfortunately, not even settling in for an evening of Netflix is private. Along with the information you provide when you create an account, streaming services can also record what you use to watch it, your searches, how many episodes of a show you watch, and any interactions you have with customer services.

ScreenshotNetflix’s website in 2019

Source: USA Today

If you’re hungry and order food while watching, it’s another opportunity for companies to track you. In 2018, the Wall Street Journal investigated how much data was released by ordering pizza and watching a movie. It found two friends could give up 53 pieces of data.

REUTERS/Thomas PeterDelivery boxes for take-away pizzas are stacked at a Domino’s Pizza store in Berlin, August 19, 2013.

Source: Wall Street Journal

While data is mainly gathered through screens at the moment, the future of data gathering is likely to be in health-monitoring technology and your voice. Thousands of Amazon workers are already listening to some Echoes in order to improve Alexa’s comprehension of human speech.

Sources: Wired, Bloomberg

To protect your privacy, you can use complicated, different passwords, enable two-step authentication, download encryption tools, and, if you’re really concerned, post less. But really, it’s almost impossible to live a fully private life in the modern world.

Daily Herald Archive/SSPL/GettyPropaganda sign encouraging people not to talk freely during wartime in the 1940s. The slogan uses a play on words: keeping mum means to be silent. The government was concerned that enemy spies might pick up useful information by listening to careless conversations.

Source: Time

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