Your data is the big goldmine of online life. Companies like Facebook and Google have histories on what you like and search and they use it to make money. This is generally done by using that information to match your activity, likes, and searches with advertisers who may have a product in which you would be interested.
Those pesky ads that slip into your Facebook feed or pop up next to your Google search results are a product of this type of data mining. Google recently has been trying to resolve legal and public relations difficulties that resulted from its priority display of advertisers sites ahead of other hits in its online search results.
The WSJ article points to another well-know fact of modern life. If you have a cellphone, smart or not, the phone company (a.k.a communications Goliaths like Verizon and ATT) have data on you. Lots of people may want that data, particularly on where go and who you call or on searches that you make through a smartphone.
One the one hand, you should be concerned about your civil liberty. When something goes work, government law enforcement agencies, whether federal, state or local, may want to know a lot about you was talking to whom at the time of a certain event. Think about the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon. Law enforcement relied very heavily on video surveillance cameras in the area of the bombing to identify suspects. Later, a cellphone's location tracking helped police follow the suspects movements. There is recent story of NYC police chasing down a stolen cellphone using the tracking system, complete with a "French Connection" car chase. (Here are links to reports by UPI, The Blaze and The Times Ledger)
Here's a part of the WSJ article on the new interest that cell carriers have in cashing in on your activities:
The information provides a powerful tool for marketers but raises new privacy concerns. Even as Americans browsing the Internet grow more accustomed to having every move tracked, combining that information with a detailed accounting of their movements in the real world has long been considered particularly sensitive.It is unlikely that large cellphone carriers are going to turn their backs on the money to be made here. They also insist in the WSJ article that they are taking care not to give advertisers anything that would identify individual users. So, until we have a stricter set of laws about what happens to your data, the corporate holders of this data are essentially asking you to trust them.
The new offerings are also evidence of a shift in the relationship between carriers and their subscribers. Instead of merely offering customers a trusted conduit for communication, carriers are coming to see subscribers as sources of data that can be mined for profit, a practice more common among providers of free online services like Google and Facebook.
So, what are you to do if you do wish your activities to be mined? You may not be able to do this completely without getting rid of your cellphone or other mobile device --- anything that connects to a network and therefore accumulates data on your activity with whoever runs the network. But, there are some simple things that you can do to be more careful about the data that is accumulated. To begin, be careful what you post on social media like Facebook and FourSquare. When you check-in, you are telling someone where you are and the network will have that information in its storage of data on your activity.
Also, with applications on smartphones (Apple or Android) remember that many of those applications ask you to let them access your location through location services setting on the phone. Think about that before you authorize such use. It may make some sense to let the application know where you are when you want to get directions from that location to somewhere else. What about knowing the weather? That seems logical, but you can always enter in applications like The Weather Channel app the location for which you want the weather information rather than let your phone tell them where you are in real time. I have The Weather Channel app set to give me the weather in five or six different places around the world and I am not in all of them (or any of them) simultaneously.
Go to the Settings menu on your phone and go through the applications to see which ones have location services turned on. Decide (a) whether you need the application at all (our phones are often bloated with applications that we do not use; I am slowly trying to get rid of them) and (b) does it make any sense at all for the application to know where you are?
Also, while it is comforting to know that there is an application that can find your smartphone if it is lost or stolen (or down beneath the cushions on your couch), you may want to consider turning off your smartphone completely from time to time --- for purposes of privacy and just plain old peace and quiet.