August 04, 2012, 7:05 AM — These days, you need a healthy dose of naiveté to think that your personal data isn't routinely bought, sold or tracked online. Tracking cookies are the norm on popular websites, and tech giants such as Google and Facebook have a reputation for mishandling and/or overcollecting users' personal data.
But while those issues receive lots of attention, corporations and governments may keep an eye on you in other, lesser-known ways. Here are five online privacy intrusions that you might not know about.
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The Government Might Be Building a File on You
The idea that government agents are reading your email messages and listening to your phone calls sounds like the stuff of conspiracy theorists, but saner minds claim that it's possible. According to several former National Security Agency employees-turned-whistleblowers, the government is building a dossier on practically every U.S. citizen, drawing on information from e-mails and phone calls. And as Wired has reported, the NSA is building a massive spy center to sift through all the data and figure out who's a threat.
But good luck getting the government to be at all transparent on the issue. The NSA denies that it has the ability to spy on people's email, but also says it would violate people's privacy to say whether they've been spied on. The agency's verbal contortions are vaguely amusing, but mostly just frightening.
What You Can Do: Of course, you can't opt out of this type of data collection, but you can hope that Congress doesn't renew the FISA Amendments Act, which would renew a Bush administration law that allows the government to collect large amounts of information from the "international communications" of American citizens. The Electronic Freedom Foundation is imploring citizens to write their members of Congress about the issue.
Ebooks Know What Kind of Reader You Are
In the digital age, your reading habits are an open book to companies like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple. As The Wall Street Journal reports, ebook sellers can easily track reading data--data such as how long you spend reading, how far you get in a book, what text you search for, and what you read next. Not all companies are open about what they collect, but Barnes & Noble's vice president of ebooks, Jim Hilt, confirmed to the Journal that the bookseller is "in the earliest stages of deep analytics," and uses the data to determine which books to sell on its Nook ebook reader products.
There's no evidence that booksellers use reading data for nefarious purposes, such as sharing your habits with marketers or government agencies. The bigger concern, for the moment, is that authors and publishers may tailor the content they create or publish to sync with the reading tastes of the mainstream, which would discourage creative risk-taking and diminish the variety of available content.
What You Can Do: If you're uncomfortable having your reading habits collected, your only option is to shut off your device's Internet connection whenever you're about to open an ebook.
Offline Retailers May Know What You're Doing Online
For retailers, learning as much as possible about customers' buying habits doesn't stop when you leave the store. Last February, The New York Times reported that Target assigns every shopper a "Guest ID" number when possible. This code links the shopper's offline purchases to their online activity, which according to the Times includes Web history and the shopper's responses to promotional emails. Target uses this data to predict what customers want and figure out how and when best to pitch to them.
Although targeted marketing isn't the most evil offense, it can occasionally create some messy situations. The Times relates a story where a Target store inadvertently revealed a teenage girl's pregnancy to her father by mailing coupons for baby-related products, based on the retailer's prediction algorithms. (It's unclear whether the girl's Web history played a role in this case.)