If you think a company is keeping tabs on your activity online you are alone today. The majority of Americans — about six out of ten — now believe that they're being monitored by a company or even potentially the government. Most, a full 81 percent, also believe that they don't have much power over this kind of tracking.
The Pew Research Center reported these findings in November 2019. And now a new survey from Winston Privacy, a device that encrypts and blocks your online activity, has mirrored these points as well in its report, Navigating the Age of Surveillance. The company surveyed a small group, 1,148 people who live in the U.S. in December 2019, finding that while 74 percent "are concerned or very concerned" about online privacy, 63 percent don't know what to do about protecting their information.
Some companies legitimately track people from doctor's offices to schools Getty Images
Data tracking vs data breach
Data tracking is different, of course, than a data breach. The latter is when a company holds details and information about people, whether that's a health care company or Yahoo, and that data is left available for others to see, or is directly stolen by a hacker.
Data tracking, on the other hand, is when a group collects and follows data about people. Some of this data is necessary, for example. A doctor's office needs to keep medical records on patients. A local water company keeps track of billing details for its customers. A school collects records about its students, from birth dates to grades.
But some companies may have collected information about people that they may not know is stored. That can be anything from someone comparison shopping for new sneakers to a walking tour they took through New Orleans' French Quarter. From location tracking to online shopping, apps and cookies can gather these details when people are online.
More than 70 percent of request for user's data online comes from trackers and advertisers Getty Images/iStockphoto
Winston Privacy ran a tracker across the QuantCast 500, the 500 most visited web sites in the U.S., and found that more than 70 percent of all requests made of a user's data were from trackers and advertisers. They collected likes, purchases and even what other sites you visited too. Consumers, for the most part know this — or are at least worried about the data being collected, and by the internet service provider, which provides the connection from their home to the internet.
Seven out of 10 consumers were either very or somewhat concerned about their ISP "being able to sell information about the activities they do online to advertisers," reports a new paper, "The Smart Home Report 2019," from Wi-Fi mesh company Plume and Horowitz Research citing 2017 figures.
You get one price, your friend gets another
But companies do more than sell this information to advertisers. These details can be used for pricing testing, for example, where depending on the device you're using to search online, you may get one level of hotels, and your pal may get a selection that's more expensive.
Apple iPhone users, for example, tend to be thought of as people with more discretionary income. The company's smartphone, after all, are some of the most expensive on the market, if not some of the most popular. Android smartphones can be picked up for a fraction of the cost — i.e. people who marketers may see as having less money to spend on a vacation.
Consumers, in rare cases, have the right to have their data removed from company databases Getty Images
While most people may know, or suspect, that they're being tracked online, getting that information expunged is not easy. Europe's General Data Protection Regulation, which requires companies protect information on consumers and also somewhat gives people the right to be removed from company databases, took effect in 2019, but there is nothing similar protecting consumers in the U.S. And even Europe's law is being circumvented by companies, like Google.
Still, there's some movement in the U.S. towards the rights people have over their data, including a new California state statute, the California Consumer Privacy Act, that allows its residents to know what information is being collected on them — and tell a company to scrape it.
How will this data grab end? Already, 11 percent of those surveyed by Winston, said that they're an "open book," and whatever people — or a company or government — wants to know about them, that's just fine. They're willing to have their details seen and tracked. But whether that number grows to include the majority, or more people will demand to gain control over their data, is unknown. That's a decision, ultimately, consumers will be the one to make.