Who’s Collecting Data About Your Every Digital Move? (Hint: It’s Not the NSA)

July 2013:  If you hop online or use a mobile phone, you have a digital footprint. The digital environment is built to track! From your computer’s IP address to your social media “Likes” to your Amazon.com orders, you have a trail that tells your story. 

Here’s what three of the most popular online services are collecting about you and how you can leave a lighter footprint:

1) Internet Browser: Your browser tracks every search query and website that you visit. 

To prevent this information from being stored on your computer, use your browser’s privacy mode: Incognito Mode in Chrome, Private Browsing in Firefox, Private Browsing in Safari, InPrivate Browsing in Internet Explorer 9, and Private Tab in Opera. But your Internet service provider still tracks everything, and so does your employer if you’re on a company-owned device. 

2) Google: Regardless of which app you’re using, Google is capturing data, including your email content.

After all, the apps are free, and Google is in the business of selling ads. Your searches, the sites you visit, your Google+ activity — all this information is accessed to allow advertisers to target interested audiences. Have you ever noticed an item you just searched for in Google shows up in a Facebook ad a few minutes later? Other email clients scan content but typically for the purpose of filtering for spam, malware and attachments with viruses. Here’s Google’s Privacy Policy (which is currently facing legal issues in France and Spain) and scroll down to the Transparency and Choice section to see what kind of access you’ve granted Google and review your Google Dashboard. 

3) Facebook: The platform owns anything you put on it, plus its apps can access and store your data.

Facebook has taken a lot of heat regarding all things privacy — and its Data Use Policy has been continually updated. What you may not know is you can be leaving a major footprint by using apps that collect data from your profile, friends lists, notes, photos, status updates, locations and more. You can also go back later to restrict app access (click on your Apps Setting page in the gear icon menu), remove apps that collect data and even disable all apps entirely. But if you want to delete the data that apps have already collected, it’s not so easy. Facebook says “you will need to contact the [app] developer directly.” For the complete story, read the part about other websites and applications but don’t expect it to be the most exciting thing you’ll do today.

Which other sites collect data about you? Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Yahoo!, Amazon.com, Overstock.com, WordPress, YouTube, Microsoft, Apple — to name a few. So just assume that they all collect data, and that wherever you’ve hopped, you’ve left your mark!