This is a living article, updated frequently with examples of how personal data about you is being collected. I will post in-depth discussions of these examples on my Psychology Today blog.
Last updated November 13, 2020
We all know that the data we post on social media is never really private, and we are cautioned to be careful about what we choose to share. However, when it comes to building profiles of us — our interests, our demographics, our behavior, and more — companies delve far deeper than just analyzing our posts. If you don’t spend a lot of time looking for these examples, you may be surprised by just how extensive the data collection is.
This article is a collection of some of the more surprising and creepy things companies are doing to get your data. I am going to keep it updated, so you should be able to come back here for new horrors on the regular.
Click each item for a link to an outside article or a blog post I’ve written discussing the tech
- Lens Scratches Say A Lot — Say you’re at a conference and someone you don’t really know takes a picture of you at a reception. You like the picture and ask them to send it to you. Someone else at the reception, unbeknownst to you, does the same thing. You each post the pictures taken by this stranger to your Facebook pages. Facebook can suggest that you become friends because it analyzes the patterns of lens scratches and dust on the camera lens that appear almost invisibly in the phone. They can tell that the photo of you and the other person were taken by the same camera at about the same time, and guess you might know each other.
- Sensing your phone is next to mine means…we’re friends! — Using various types of sensing, Facebook can detect when phones spend time near each other, and even if the people with them are facing towards each other or away. That creepy guy who won’t stop talking to you at the bar? Maybe you’ll show up as a suggested friend on his Facebook page because his phone spent time facing yours.
- Think you’re not on Facebook? Not so fast — Even if you haven’t set up a Facebook account, the company likely maintains a “shadow profile” of you. How do they get this data. For example, if I give Facebook access to my contact list and you’re in it, they know you exist. If you have 20 friends who keep you in their contact list and who let Facebook access that, Facebook knows your phone number and the 20 Facebook users you’re connected to. They know other information from the contact list — maybe a name, an email, street address, even a photo. Using some advanced AI, they can use this to make guesses about your interests, detect photos you’re in on Facebook even if you weren’t tagged, and find other people you may know.
- Your phone is listening in — It’s a modern paranoia that people worry their phone is listening to them talk. And that paranoia is based in truth. Apps can passively turn on the microphone on your device and listen in.
- Trackers Everywhere! An experiment by the Washington Post showed 5,400 hidden app trackers siphoned data off a normal user’s phone in just one week. These are in lots of apps you use — probably most of them — and you often have very little idea that this tracking is happening. Depending on permission, they can pull information from your contacts, your text message log, lists of other apps you have installed, the contents of your clipboard (like if you copied and pasted something), and more.
- Location Tracking even if you turn off location tracking — Maybe you don’t want your GPS location tracked, so you turn off the ability for apps to use location tracking. Unfortunately, you’re not safe. If you’re connecting to WiFi networks, the app can see that. The identifier for your WiFi network can then be mapped to a GPS location using existing databases.
- Listening in without a microphone — It’s common to worry about apps listening in on you, and we know that’s a real thing that happens. But if you turn off microphone access — in fact, even if you ripped the microphone out of your phone — you’re not necessarily safe. The accelerometer in your phone, which can detect which position it is held in or pointing, can pick up on vibrations from your speaking and translate that into the words you are saying. Essentially, it can become a backup microphone.