The Customer Is Always… For Sale?

My introduction to social media started over 20 years ago in college with the campus intranet. From there, it was quickly followed by an account at the relatively local Iowa Student Computer Association’s (ISCA) bulletin board service (BBS) – think “early Reddit”. Users of the ISCABBS could follow topics of numerous variety as well as hold private conversations. Discussing ideas, big and small, was the norm, but admittedly, it was also how one could find a lot of dates. Little did we know, however, that what started as an easy (and fun) way to pass some time would lead to the Internet of Now – where your Personal Identifiable Information (PII) is being bought and sold by, and to, the highest bidders.

Your Personal Identifiable Information Is Being Sold – And You Agreed To It’s Sale

While we once created online accounts with impunity, eschewing stodgy BBS’s for the new, glittery horizons of Myspace and Yahoo! Chat Rooms, our personal data was becoming a desirable (and marketable) commodity. We went from “The Customer is always right” to “The Customer is always for sale”.

It didn’t take long before marketers started to track our every online move with methods that most stalkers would envy. Think about it, how long did it take you to notice the car you were researching or the shoes you were looking at began to appear in banner or sidebar ads?

Have you ever wondered why it is that Facebook wants you to use your account credentials to connect to hundreds of websites? Besides being one of the most extensive social research tools available – your data is worth dollars!

In 2005, an article in the Washington Post1 pointed out the price of giving up privacy by discussing the data breaches of Bank of America and ChoicePoint, Inc., which had put the data of 1.4 million people at risk. Even Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) learned during the trials that his data had been compromised. Who you are, where you live, and what you search for are for sale.

"So yes, your information is a commodity; and no, you don't get a cut." Evan Hendricks

Give Us Your First Born!

First of all, don’t panic. We all make errors in judgment. But, before you open up another account online, for social media or shopping, here are some things to consider:

  • Every account you create online creates a little, electronic breadcrumb. Big Data are the birds, and they are eating them up.
  • Nothing is ever “free”. Not even your Facebook account. You might not be handing over cash for the account, but you are paying.
  • No matter how reputable the company you choose to do business with, if they go belly up, your information is an asset to be bought and sold, and you have no control over who sees it.

Now, I’m not going to tell you to backtrack and pick up every breadcrumb you’ve left on the internet. But, as is taught to every police officer and military personnel out there – educate yourself on situational awareness. This applies to the internet as much as it does to heading to the mall for the afternoon.

There are some things you can do now, to give you a good baseline of where you stand when it comes to keeping your Personally Identifiable Information (PII), intellectual property, and yourself safe.

Down The Rabbit Hole

First and foremost, check your credit report; under the 2003 Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), you’re entitled to a free annual credit report. Take advantage of it!

Second, remember your ancient MySpace account? How about that old AOL e-mail? Scrub those old accounts away using websites like JustDelete.Me or DeSeat.Me. These tools are yours to use (some costs may apply) to minimize your Internet footprint, or at least remove online skeletons from your closet.

Third, check your settings! I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve walked through changing their personal settings on Facebook alone. Be aware that the default is to allow anyone to see what you post, that includes photos of you and your children (or niblings, grandchildren, etc.). Twenty years ago I would drive across the state without a cell phone from home to college and you know what? I was just fine. I didn’t need to check in when I stopped at Bluemkes Food Mart in Rosendale then, and I don’t now, either. It’s okay that people don’t know where I am every minute of every day.

Lastly, if going nuclear is your choice, visit the above websites, plus begin deactivation/deletion of all of your current online haunts. There are plenty of websites out there to help you through the process, and even a book, “Hiding from the Internet: Eliminating Personal Online Information” by Michael Bazzell.

If you’re like most of us, though, pressing the big red button may not be our best option. We can limit our exposure and our accounts. You don’t need to have an account on every social media platform. You also don’t need to use your real name – pseudonymous accounts are a very good idea. Bonus: It’s harder to steal the identity of someone who doesn’t exist.

Finally, read the fine print. Marc Goodman’s book, “Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable, and What We Can Do About It” points out many of the things we all agree to in the Terms of Service for various platforms. It’s up to you, the end user, to protect your Personal Identifiable Information.

For what it’s worth – I’m a convert to reading the Terms of Service and Privacy Agreements.

1 Hendricks, Evan. “When Your Identity Is Their Commodity.” The Washington Post, March 6, 2005

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