If you are blissfully unaware of how frequently others track your everyday activities, you might be practically paranoid after you read this article. You might be surprised at how companies collect information about you, wherever you are. You might find that total strangers are electronically “looking over your shoulder” 24 hours a day.
Here are a few of the ways that companies collect information and eavesdrop on our health, shopping, and everyday activities:
- Discount cards. You know those cards they offer you at the register at some drugstores and other retail establishments that give you access to automatic discounts, points and other perks that seem to be freebies? Those stores do not give you those benefits out of the goodness of their hearts. Someone pays them to collect data on their customers, or they use your data for their own purposes. These cards typically track what you buy and who you are – your name and address.
- Public Wifi. Sure, you can save a bundle by using public wifi at the library, coffeehouse, or other hotspots, but you leave yourself highly vulnerable to hackers and people using “packet sniffers.” These devices can capture which websites you visit and the data that you send to them, like your name, address, date of birth, and credit card information.
- Medical gadgets. If you have a defibrillator or pacemaker implanted, the device could have a connection to your doctor or hospital and transmit your medical information to them. While your cardiac data might sound innocuous, cardiologists say that such devices collect information about you that can give your health insurance company a mountain of data.
- DNA kits for genealogy research. You want a definitive answer to the family lore about where your ancestors came from, so you order a kit, spit into a tube and send it off to a lab somewhere. Guess what? Law enforcement detectives can get access to your DNA information from those companies.
- Fitness trackers. Many people boast of losing weight and getting into better shape because of a gizmo they strap around their wrists. Fitness trackers can give you a wealth of information, like your heart rate (24/7), the number of steps you take every day, what you eat, your weight and BMI (body mass index), the route you take on your walks or runs and when and how long you sleep. Millions of Americans use fitness trackers that send their information to their employer and health insurance companies. Do you really want them to have that information?
- Rental cars. When you connect your cell phone to a rental car’s electronics system, subsequent users can scroll through the car’s system menus to see what phone calls you made. Some cars even allow them to access all of the contacts on your phone if the rental car’s electronics system downloads them.
- “Smart” gadgets and appliances in your home. You might love having Alexa order things for you or play music, but the companies that provide smart speaker services record everything people in your home say, whether you are talking to the gadget or not. Smart TVs, appliances, lighting, and anything else in your home that you can control with an app on your cell phone, gives companies access to what goes on inside what you thought was the privacy of your home, as well as your personal data. One expert calls smart speakers “a personal data fire hose squirting from your house.”
How to Protect Yourself
There are ways to help limit some ways companies collect information about you. Some browsers, like Epic Privacy Browser or Tor, prevent bystanders from harvesting your online activity and do not let websites track you. A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is another option for securing your online activity.
Some search engines do not allow others to access your search history and they block ad trackers. DuckDuckGo and StartPage are two examples of these search engines.
If an app that controls something in your house wants access to your contacts, photos, or other information, try to run the app without granting that access.
Talk with our elder law attorneys about how your state’s regulations might differ from the general law of this article since all states have unique rules.