Some Additional Thoughts on Data Searching, and its Implications
Back in November or December, I wrote an article regarding computer searching, starting off by defining web browsers (I recommend Chrome as Edge is not yet really ready and Chrome has half the market) and Google as the search engine because they represent 75% of the market. My opinion has not changed despite Microsoft’s advertising
The first thing you quickly learn about Google is that it is able to make a lot of intelligent assumptions about what you want. There are two reasons for this. First, it can work around your mistyping or misspelling. Second, it remembers (unless you instruct it not to remember) what you have looked for in the past. This is a mixed blessing, mostly good. But here are a few reasons that it could turn out to be a problem.
- If an account is used by multiple family members, then the other person knows what you looked for. Like the birthday gift that you found and bought. Or the porn you viewed. Or the hotel room or jewelry you bought for the girlfriend. Or things you don’t want the grandkids to see when they are using your computer.
- Google uses the information in your previous searches to direct advertising towards you. So if you bought a cane, do not be surprised if you get ads for a wheelchair or another cane. If you booked a room in Newport, do not be surprised if you get ads from other Newport attractions. This is viewed by many as a feature, but I find it irritating. Each of the browsers gives you an option to delete the list of searches you have made. I do this frequently.
- If you are doing a BOLLI paper on bombs and go to dozens of sites on bomb-making, do not be surprised if you receive a visit from Homeland Security. They and NSA have the ability to watch internet and phone traffic (do they utilize it???). The problem, of course, is that, though your search history may have been deleted from YOUR files, it doesn’t mean that GOOGLE or Comcast doesn’t have the data on its servers. Each year, Google gets many warrants for data and, for the moment, rejects most of them. That may well change.
Let’s take a simple example. You get onto the Amazon website to see if you want to purchase some shorts. You’ve used this site before and have set up shipping addresses for a number of members of your family. What might happen next?
- Amazon and other on-line purchase sites know about ALL your previous purchases AND those things you have merely looked at. They will use this data to recommend other things for you to purchase, either during this browsing session or in subsequent ones. But Amazon and other companies have Artificial Intelligent systems studying your purchases, trying to further understand what makes you tick. A few years ago, there was a story about a woman who made a bunch of purchases, and the company (Target) calculated that she was pregnant (she didn’t know) and started sending her baby things. That surprised her father who was upset. See https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/#78ba7db16668
“As Target’s computers crawled through the data, it was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed it to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, it could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.”
This is pretty scary! If you buy a swimsuit in April, should you be targeted with ads for sunscreen in July? I’ll have an article on Artificial Intelligence and machine learning soon.
- Don’t be surprised if company A sells its purchase data to company B. I do not believe that Amazon sells their data.
- Your browser knows where you have been, unless you delete the entries.
- Your provider (like Comcast) is collecting this data. AND, they might be selling it. There is a lot of money available for buying focused lists. The Obama administration tried to put in legislation to stop the selling of private data. The Trump Administration plans to roll that back. (See my past article on Net Neutrality for more information on this subject.)
- The government can request access to this data though it involves multiple legal issues. Remember a year ago when the government tried to get access to a protected Apple phone and Apple refused to provide the access?
Bottom Line: forget about privacy. It is a myth. Sorry.
A long-time computer expert and guide, John provides his helpful hints in this monthly BOLLI Matters feature. In the comment box below, provide questions or comments for John on any computer/tech topic . John.firstname.lastname@example.org
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