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Six Ways to Give Away Less of Your Personal Data

Sometimes it feels like privacy, as a concept, has vanished from the world. Advertisers certainly seem to know everything about you, serving up frighteningly accurate ads that make you think your phone’s microphone has been turned on and marketers are actively listening to your every mumble.

They’re not—yet. But they are engaged in something called “data mining,” which is the process of collecting enormous amounts of anonymous data from your every connected activity and then analyzing that data to infiltrate your life with advertisements and other influences. And it’s not just corporate America—criminals can mine your data in order to rip you off.

If that bugs you—and it should—you can take some steps to minimize data mining in your life. You can’t completely escape it unless you plan to live off-grid with zero Internet connection, but you can reduce your exposure. After all, it’s your data, you’re not being compensated for it, and it’s creepy that some anonymous marketing team knows you’re really into RPGs and craft beer.

Read those EULAs

One of the biggest vectors for mining your data is your smartphone, especially the apps you’ve installed on it. Every time you install an app you agree to its terms—the end user license agreement (EULA) and other requirements.

A first line of defense against data mining is to take the time to review those EULAs. You can’t negotiate, but if you see you’re being asked for blanket permission to send data back to the mothership, you might at least look for an alternative. The key warning signs that the app is just a data-mining vessel are granting permission to monitor your Internet activity, to explicitly collect personal information, or to use your computer or device for their own purposes. If you see anything that gives you pause, think twice before agreeing.

Check settings

When you install an app on your device, you probably click through a series of permissions that grant that app access to everything it needs to gather data about you. This is a data-mining goldmine.

A few years ago, for example, an investigation found that about 5,400 apps were siphoning data from just one person’s smartphone—1.5 gigs of data in all. And back in 2017, an app maker called Alphonso was caught tracking what people were watching on TV by activating the microphone on their smartphones.

If an app requires a lot of unnecessary permissions—does a game really need access to your microphone, location, and camera?—you should assume it’s more of a data-mining app than anything else. Your next line of defense: Stop installing garbage free apps and spend that dollar. Every app wants to make money from you, and if you’re not paying up front, you’re paying in some other way, most likely by having your data stripmined.

Be boring on social

Social media is very obviously a dumpster fire when it comes to privacy. You’re literally posting a photo of you at the store with the hashtag #LiveToShop, so you shouldn’t be surprised when that store’s ads start popping up all over your life.

If you’re concerned about data mining, you can take a few simple steps to reduce the access that data miners have to your social media:

  • Set your profile to private. If your main goal on social media is to connect with friends or colleagues, restrict the reach of your posts to just those folks.

  • Be a snob. Don’t accept every request you receive to connect—if you don’t know that person, they don’t need to be let in to your inner circle.

  • Discretion. Don’t blast your travel plans, spending habits, or product reviews out into the universe.

Using social media compromises your privacy, but if you’re mindful of the information data miners want, you can at least refuse to make it easy.

Log out

When you log into platforms like Google or Facebook, that platform can pretty easily track what you’re doing. And as long as you’re signed in, that ability persists—even if you leave the site. These companies are really data mining companies, and they have perfected the art of following you around.

It’s a pain in the butt, but logging out of those services when you’re not actively using them (and clearing cookies and browsing history regularly) can slow down the vacuuming of data. It’s inconvenient to do so by design, but it has a real impact on how much information is being mined from your online activities.

Avoid memes

Data mining isn’t just about advertisers selling your stuff. It can also be weaponized by scammers to get personal info they can use to rob you blind, steal your identity, or steal your identity and then rob you blind.

One easy way they can do this is to just wait for you to respond to a phishing meme. These memes look like innocent fun quizzes where you supply some seemingly innocuous bits of personal information and receive a chuckle in response. Common examples include posting your “porn name” (a combination of common security question answers like your middle name or the model of your first car or something similar) or using the last digits of your phone number to do some math magic.

Luckily, there’s an easy way to avoid data mining via phishing memes: Ignore the memes. Your life will actually be incrementally better anyway.

Tech solutions

One of the most effective ways to cut down your exposure to data mining requires a bit more effort. Various privacy tools exist that can really stem the flow of your data to the unappeasable black hole of marketing:

  • VPNs. Virtual Private Networks are useful for privacy because they obscure your location and IP address, which makes it a lot harder for data miners to collate the data they get. Since your data appears to come from a wide range of random locations, it’s impossible to build a coherent profile of your preferences and habits. Installing a VPN on your computer, phone, and devices will go a long way towards cutting off the flow of private information.

  • Tor. The Tor Browser routes your web surfing traffic through many encrypted nodes, making it basically impossible to track your travels on the Internet. If you really want to go dark, combine Tor with a VPN and you’ll be practically invisible. If you’re not ready to use Tor as your everyday browser, use a privacy-focused browser like DuckDuckGo or Brave, or at least adjust the privacy settings in your browser to make it as secure as possible.

  • Ad blockers. Almost every single website you visit tracks your activities and gathers data about you. While using a privacy browser is an effective way to stifle that, ad-blocking plugins can go the extra mile by denying intrusive access to your browsing experience altogether.

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