The Terrifying Reality of Personal Data Collection

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.

Device Snooping

  • 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.

Prof @ UMD iSchool, computer scientist, social media analyst

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