Data Mining: How Companies Now Know Everything About You

Every detail of your life — what you buy, where you go, whom you love — is being extracted from the Internet, bundled and traded by data-mining companies. What's in it for you?

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Illustration by Joe Zeff for TIME

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The Facebook and Google Troves
Our identities, however, were never completely within our control: our friends keep letters we've forgotten writing, our enemies tell stories about us we remember differently, our yearbook photos are in way too many people's houses. Opting out of all those interactions is opting out of society. Which is why Facebook is such a confusing privacy hub point. Many data-mining companies made this argument to me: How can I complain about having my Houston trip data-mined when I'm posting photos of myself with a giant mullet and a gold chain on Facebook and writing columns about how I want a second kid and my wife doesn't? Because, unlike when my data is secretly mined, I get to control what I share. Even narcissists want privacy. "It's the difference between sharing and tracking," says Bret Taylor, Facebook's chief technology officer.

To get into the Facebook office in Palo Alto, Calif., I have to sign a piece of physical paper: a Single-Party Non-Disclosure Agreement, which legally prevents me from writing the last paragraph. But your privacy on Facebook — that's up to you. You choose what to share and what circle of friends gets to see it, and you can untag yourself from any photos of you that other people put up. However, from a miner's point of view, Facebook has the most valuable trove of data ever assembled: not only have you told it everything you like, but it also knows what your friends like, which is an amazing predictor of what you'll like.

Facebook doesn't sell any of your data, partly because it doesn't have to — 23.1% of all online ads not on search engines, video or e-mail run on Facebook. But data-mining companies are "scraping" all your personal data that's not set to private and selling it to any outside party that's interested. So that information is being bought and sold unless you squeeze your Facebook privacy settings tight, which keeps you from a lot of the social interaction that drew you to the site in the first place.

The only company that might have an even better dossier on you than Facebook is Google. In a conference room on the Google campus, I sit through a long privacy-policy PowerPoint presentation. Summary: Google cares! Specifically, Google keeps the data it has about you from various parts of its company separate. One category is the personally identifiable account data it can attach to your name, age, gender, e-mail address and ZIP code when you signed up for services like Gmail, YouTube, Blogger, Picasa, iGoogle, Google Voice or Calendar. The other is log data associated with your computer, which it "anonymizes" after nine months: your search history, Chrome browser data, Google Maps requests and all the info its myriad data trackers and ad agencies (DoubleClick, AdSense, AdMob) collect when you're on other sites and Android phone apps. You can change your settings on the former at Google Dashboard and the latter at Google Ads Preferences — where you can opt out of having your data mined or change the company's guesses about what you're into.

Nicole Wong, deputy general counsel at Google, says the company created these tools to try to reassure people who have no idea how all this information is being collected and used. "When I go to TIME.com as a user, I think only TIME.com is collecting my data. What I don't realize is that for every ad on that page, a company is also dropping a code and collecting my data. It's a black box — and we've tried to open up the box. Sometimes you're not even sure who the advertisers are. It's just a bunch of jumping monkeys or something." Google really does want to protect your privacy, but it's got issues. First, it's profit-driven and it's huge. But those aren't the main reasons privacy advocates get so upset about Google. They get upset because the company's guiding philosophy conflicts with the notion of privacy. As the PowerPoint says right up top: "Google's mission: to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Which is awesome, except for the fact that my information is part of the world's information.

Tracking the Trackers
To see just what information is being gathered about me, I downloaded Ghostery, a browser extension that lets you watch the watchers watching you. Each time you go to a new website, up pops a little bubble that lists all the data trackers checking you out. This is what I discovered: the very few companies that actually charge you for services tend not to data mine much. When you visit TIME.com, several dozen tracking companies, with names such as Eyeblaster, Bluestreak, DoubleClick and Factor TG, could be collecting data at any given time.

If you're reading this in print as a subscriber, TIME has probably "rented" your name and address many times to various companies for a one-time use. This is also true if you subscribe to Vanity Fair, Cosmopolitan or just about any other publication.

This being America, I don't have to wait for the government to give me an opt-out option; I can pay for one right now. Michael Fertik, the CEO and founder of Reputation.com, who nabbed my Social Security number, will do it for me for just $8.25 a month. His company will also, for a lot more money, make Google searches of your name come up with more flattering results — because when everyone is famous, everyone needs a public relations department. Fertik, who clerked for the chief judge of the Sixth Circuit after graduating from Harvard Law School, believes that if data mining isn't regulated, everyone will soon be assigned scores for attractiveness and a social-prowess index and a complainer index, so companies can avoid serving you — just as you now have a credit score that they can easily check before deciding to do business with you. "What happens when those data sets are used for life transactions: health insurance, employment, dating and education? It's inevitable that all of these decisions will be made based on machine conclusions. Your FICO score is already an all-but-decisional fact about you. ABD, dude! All but decisional," says Fertik.

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