“If It’s Free, Then You Are the Product.”
The internet is filled with “free” offers and targeted ads promising prizes or monetary rewards with just a click. Unfortunately, nothing online is free. In fact, when companies or organizations offer these promotions, what they are actually doing is marketing you as a consumer and web mining your personal information.
Web mining is data collection done through the internet. This process generates information about online activity and tracks patterns of web users at the individual and group level. This puts internet users at risk for identity theft if personal data is stolen. It also leaves users vulnerable to unwelcome influence by corporations and other entities. Therefore, if you opt for something “free” on the internet, you are actually paying with your personal information and becoming the “product.”
From search engines such as Google to credit report access, any company offering or providing a free service online is creating an illusion. Of course, all businesses intend to make as much profit as possible, so it would be a terrible business model to give away any products or services. When it comes to free online services, most likely the business providing it is building a database of internet searches and personally identifiable information (PII) of users to sell.
The way it works is that an online business will offer a particular service, such as credit report monitoring, at no cost to the user. This offer encourages internet users to sign up for the free service, which almost always involves creating some kind of online account with the business. These accounts require PII, whether it’s your name, phone number, email address, birthdate, or even financial information.
Though account holders most likely will receive the service offered for free, the business has obtained valuable PII in return. This allows them to do several things, including tracking your online habits and presence for targeted ads or selling the personal data of account holders to other businesses.
As a result, it’s important to carefully consider signing up for any free online services. It’s much better to recognize the illusion and withhold sharing any personal data in order to create an account with these businesses.
Social Media Platforms
It seemingly costs nothing to join social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. However, these platforms generate enormous amounts of income at the users’ expense. In fact, most web mining of personal data is conducted through social media and users retain almost no privacy when it comes to posting comments, pictures, and even “likes.”
Social media activity and patterns are tracked so that eventually companies are matching your online preferences with marketing. This can have a huge impact and influence on you as a consumer and internet user. In addition, this marketing is likely to generate even more PII that social media platforms and other online businesses can use to sell, share, or mine for databases or targeted advertising.
Online targeted ads generate a huge source of income for businesses. Most internet users have had the experience of searching for something online and then receiving numerous subsequent advertisements for websites offering that same product or service. This is due to the presence of online “cookies,” which are essentially data trackers sent by a website to a user’s computer to be stored in order to personalize and further track web browsing.
Businesses are able to formulate and disperse targeted ads based on databases of customer information. This information is compiled through tracking website traffic, pairing with affiliated sites, and mining social media sites as well. This allows companies to efficiently and easily place relevant advertising within sight of internet users to influence them to purchase products or services.
Don’t Be the Product
Most internet users are aware of identity theft and the financial, emotional, and mental damage that can result. The more personally identifiable information that is shared online, the greater the risk of becoming a victim of identity theft and fraud. Most identity theft victims spend years rebuilding and repairing their finances, credit ratings, personal reputation, and emotional stability. There isn’t a “free” service or product offered online that would be worth the risk of having your identity stolen. Therefore, it’s essential to limit sharing any PII online to what is absolutely necessary.
Another way to avoid becoming a product for data mining or targeted ads is to disable any “cookies” or pop-up advertisements in your web browser. You can also enhance your online devices with protective software and review all privacy policies when creating any online account.
Unfortunately, the simplest and most effective means of guarding against personal data mining and online targeted advertising is to deactivate and/or delete any social media. This can be a difficult decision to make for those who enjoy the connections, entertainment, and information that social media platforms afford. In fact, even the most casual of social media participants report that they experience stress and anxiety upon deactivating or deleting their accounts.
The good news is that after the initial break from social media, many former participants report increased health and overall well-being. This may be due to a multitude of reasons, but one correlation may be the absence of being inundated with targeted ads and other powerful online influencing. In addition, abstaining from social media greatly reduces the risk of falling victim to identity theft and other online fraud.
Nothing Is Free
The bottom line is that nothing on the internet is free. If you opt to create an account for a free online service or click to receive a free product online, you can be sure that there is a catch. That catch is access to your personal data and online behavior, whether it is definitive PII or tracking your internet presence and footprint through your searches and website visits.
Corporations and online businesses are persistently and aggressively searching for consumer and internet user information and patterns. This is so they can generate data in order to sell more products and services, which can generate even more data. Keep free of this cycle by limiting access to your data in any form.