1) Location data
If you’ve ever played Pokemon Go or used Google Maps, chances are you have your phone’s location data turned on. And it’s undeniably useful: apps like Waze and Yelp use this highly-specific information to provide you with all kinds of handy, localized services.
However, there aren’t many restrictions on what others can do with this data once you volunteer it. Government agencies, for example, can get your number from the phone company, and then track your cell wherever it goes. If you’re logged in to Google while using a Google app, the search giant doesn’t even need to check outside records to know who you are and where you’ve been.
And step into a local independent cafe, and you might see a Starbucks ad pop up – a marketing tactic called “geofencing” that also relies on detailed location data. In short, as long as your location is turned on, you’re being tracked.
Say you send an e-mail to your sister, asking what she wants for her birthday, and suddenly, ads for birthday party supplies start appearing wherever you look – even before your sister writes back. Congratulations; your e-mail has been automatically scanned for keywords.
Those keywords were then matched up with product categories, and advertisers who show ads based on those categories are now reaching you, whether you’re interested or not. This tracking is something most people agree to without even noticing it, when they sign up for webmail.
The targeted ads can be turned off by request, though it’s not always easy to figure out where to make that request. However, opting out of the ads doesn’t actually opt your emails out of being scanned either way. And yes, once again, the FBI can intercept emails by accessing them at this stage, if they decide to take an interest.
3) Internet Service Providers
If you’ve ever opened up a private browsing window, you’ve probably seen a little disclaimer somewhere, informing you that private browsing won’t prevent your internet service provider, or ISP, from tracking you. As a matter of fact, there’s not much of anything that can prevent your ISP from recording everything you do online.
They’re the gatekeepers, after all. Users who engage in illicit activities online – like pirating software – may receive a warning from their ISP before they ever hear from the software company whose work they pirated.
In short, without extensive setup and planning, your ISP will pretty much always know exactly what you’ve done online. Obviously, the government agencies can request access to that information as needed, often without a user’s knowledge.
4) Search engines
Stop and think about the humble search engine: when we’re looking for new information, most of us have no choice but to use search engines as the jumping-off point. That makes them an extremely tempting place to gather user data. For example, Google will track your searches on its search engine, whether you’re logged into a Google account or not.
And Google’s predictive search technology, which guesses what you’re typing as you go, is actually watching every single letter you type in. Even if you only type part of a word and then change your mind, the big G will take a guess at what you were planning to write, and then try to serve you ads based on that. Over time, this allows Google to build a fairly comprehensive picture of what you’re interested in, which it can then sell to marketing agencies – all without you having ever logged in to Google at all.
5) Social media
Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and more: social networks are where most of us spend most of our leisure time online. Obviously, social media companies track and sell user information to advertisers. But the prying eyes we worry about the most might be even scarier: they’re our own friends, families, and employers.
Hiding drunken party pictures from the parents has become a common pastime among college students. Outside college, there have even been some instances where people complained about their jobs online and ended up getting fired for doing so. In principle, the solution to these problems is easy: make sure your privacy settings are robust, and unwanted guests won’t be able to see anything.
However, the constantly-shifting nature of privacy controls on popular sites like Facebook makes this a cons