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Privacy is the ability of people to control who sees information about them. It includes the ability to not share private information such as social security numbers, birthdates, job applications, and medical information. Privacy often conflicts with merchants’ desire to use personal data for business purposes.

For example, information about consumer buying habits is a source of valuable information for advertisers who purchase ad space on the Internet. However, it can also create issues for people concerned about privacy. Software used by marketers is able to add small software files to browsers. These software files track which sites an individual visits. For example, if a user clicks an ad containing a video that uses Adobe’s Flash or HTML5, the advertiser can compile a list of sites that he visits after clicking the ad. With this information, it can display ads based on what these habits suggest about his interests. For instance, advertisers might display ads about sporting events to people who visit sports-oriented sites.

When a shopper purchases, say, a skirt online or even browses for skirts, advertising networks can automatically display ads about these types of clothing to the purchaser when they visit other sites. In addition, information gathered in this manner from social networks is a powerful way to attract advertisers. In turn, advertising networks that use bots, small programs programmed to automatically collect information, place ads at many different sites and help amass large databases of demographic information about users’ browsing and purchasing habits.

Another way that marketers collect information about users is from online games on social networks such as Facebook. Every time a Facebook member downloads a game application, the game developer acquires information about the game player. Developers track the user’s data, compile it into lists along with information about other users, and then sell the data to marketers.

Web Site Tracking, Connected Devices, and Free Search Engines

The growth in numbers of computerized connected devices such as home thermostats connected to the Internet are sources where providers can collect information that can be sold to marketers. Toys are an example of Internet-connected items that have the potential to compromise children’s privacy. Toy company Genesis manufactures an Internet-connected doll that answers questions children ask it. The questions are transmitted via the Internet to Nuance, a speech recognition company. Nuance sends back answers to their Genesis dolls.

A lack of enforcement in search engines, social networking applications, and e-commerce sites can compromise privacy. Advertising on search sites and social networks is a large percentage of web sites’ business. According to Google owner Alphabet’s annual report, Google earned 84 percent of its $34 billion revenue from advertising in the first quarter of 2018.

Merchants that advertise on these venues gain information about consumer behavior often in exchange for providing free services to consumers. These services include free online games, flight information, and travel advice. Information on consumer behavior is compiled in massive databases and sold to advertising partners.

Additional connected devices collect information about consumers. Web sites sell this information to marketing companies that use data analytics to spot trends in user behavior that they use to target specific groups of individuals for marketing and to develop new services. The following are examples of where personal data is collected and organizations that amass data:

  • Connected TVs that send data on Internet links on which viewers click. In 2017, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) fined television manufacturer Vizio $2.2 million for collecting information about customers’ viewing habits without first getting their permission.

  • Overhead drones are able to collect data using sophisticated long range cameras.

  • Credit bureaus have massive amounts of information about people. In the Equifax security breach made public in 2017, 143 million personally identifiable Social Security numbers were stolen.

  • Automated toll scanners have the ability to track where cars have traveled by scanning license plate numbers.

  • Late model cars with diagnostic software are able to track cars’ routes and owners’ driving habits.

In addition to the above, Verizon’s Oath as well as other companies provide free e-mail. They state that they do not actually read the content in these messages. However, many do track user data. France’s privacy watchdog fined Google $165,516 in 2017, claiming Google amassed large amounts of user data for advertising purposes without getting users’ permission to collect the data. The privacy watchdog also accused Google of collecting data on sites users visited on the Internet. Subscribers to Verizon Wireless’s Up reward program receive credit for every $300 they spend on Verizon Wireless services. The credits can be used for free concert tickets, movie premieres and phone upgrades. Verizon uses the data they collect in the Up ptrogram for the advertising businesses they acquired from Yahoo! and AOL.

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