January 26, 2010

You Don't Know Me

Filed under: blog — Tags: , — tsladmin @ 6:44 am

Or, if you work at certain companies, you do. Or could.
I had some interesting conversations about privacy at ALA’s Midwinter Meeting, which got me thinking about which companies probably know the most about me.
I’ve thought about my own “walled garden” a lot and worked through what I’ll share publicly, privately, and pretend privately. Most things I share publicly, and you can see a list of many of the sites I use on my FriendFeed account. It’s not difficult to piece together information about me by tracking these sites, but overall I’m more careful with specific things like location information.
The routine I’ve worked out is that Facebook is my only truly private posting area, although I do occasionally post some pictures for “friends and family only” on Flickr. Since I still don’t trust Facebook to not re-publish or claim ownership of “private” content (like pictures and videos), I don’t post anything original there except status updates and comments on friends’ updates. Even then, I don’t kid myself that those things are truly private (they’re the “pretend privately” I mentioned above). That’s why I’ve become a lot more selective about who I’ll friend there, and why I post some Foursquare location updates there (rather than on Twitter).
So if you can find out so much information about me publicly, which companies know the most about me? It’s been a very thought-provoking exercise to come up with the following list. I tried to rank the companies in order of how much daily information I think they’re accumulating about me, but it’s tough to decide if “what I’m eating” equals “what I’m watching.”

  • Cell carrier/cellphone maker – they know my location at any given time, plus all of the data that goes through my phone (and I don’t have a landline, so everything goes through my cell)
  • Cable company = they know what I watch on TV and what I surf on the net
  • Bank = they know most of the places where I spend my money
  • Credit cards = they know a lot of places I spend my money
  • LISHost – hosts my website and email, which would include a lot of receipts for online purchases
  • Google = knows most of the things I search for and many things I read (via Google Reader); even though I don’t use Gmail, any email I send to Gmail users is in their archives
  • Amazon = knows about a lot of things I purchase and read (including via my Kindle)
  • Facebook = knows a lot about what I say about myself via status updates and who my friends are
  • FriendFeed (now owned by Facebook) = aggregates a lot about what I say about myself publicly online, plus which conversations and people I watch on the site
  • Netflix = knows a lot about what I watch
  • Foursquare = knows some about where I am/go
  • Flickr = knows a lot about where I am/go, who my friends/contacts are, and what interests me
  • Twitter = knows my network and who I interact with the most
  • Health care provider = I’m lucky that I’ve been relatively healthy, but my provider(s) know about any problems
  • Delicious = knows a lot about sites I’ve visited and want to remember
  • Dopplr = knows my trips and some of my friends
  • Evernote = knows about some things I want to remember, although I haven’t put much personal information there yet
  • Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) = I don’t drive nearly as much as I used to anymore, but IDOT knows when I go on tollroads

Obviously I’m okay with what I share publicly, and in many respects, there have been enormous benefits to doing that, but I have very little control over what these companies do with the information they’re collecting about me, and I don’t trust any of them. I think the only company I do trust is LISHost, which hosts my website and email (thanks, Blake!). How much do I really care that Facebook keeps my status updates forever, whereas my email provider keeps my more private messages? And how much do I worry that my private email still goes through my cable provider’s network to get to LISHost?
I’m trying to recognize which companies are collecting ambient information about me, without me proactively posting anything. I’m sure I’m missing some, though. If you’ve thought through this yourself, what’s not on my list?


  1. I was just thinking about this today as I got on the subway. I live in DC, and the fare cards are “smart cards” that you tap every time you go in / out of the station. So WMATA knows everywhere I go and can track my patterns. And the patterns of everyone in the city. That skeeves me out.

    Comment by Meaghan — January 26, 2010 @ 8:59 am

  2. Grocery affinity cards? Or any affinity card, for that matter. Petsmart probably knows my dog is now “senior”, though you’d never know from her romp in the snow this morning.

    Comment by Karen Muller — January 26, 2010 @ 11:11 am

  3. I was also thinking about this the other day – if you have a goodreads.com account there’s what you’ve been reading, a last.fm account there’s what you’ve been listening to, and livejournal accounts have a huge list of interests for each person. I haven’t really realized until lately how much information I’ve been putting out there and it can be scary if you’re not aware of it.

    Comment by Leah — January 26, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

  4. This is very true. Also consider your local utility providers, such as electricity and water. They know essentially when you’re home–the peak times of use at your home.
    What gets me are the stores that ask for your phone number as you purchasing goods. They track individuals through phone numbers–unique identifiers. Some stores have backed away from asking for personal phone numbers and use zip codes instead. These stores don’t want to be held legal liable in case their system is hacked. Often times I say that I don’t provide my phone number, which earns me either a response of “that’s okay” or a dirty look and some attitude.

    Comment by John R. — January 27, 2010 @ 6:50 pm

  5. Meaghan, I wondered about CTA cards here in Chicago, but I don’t think they’re really tracked. At least, not yet. Definitely skeevy.
    Karen, I haven’t used grocery affinity cards for a few years, although I’ll probably start again soon. I always just tell them I forgot my card, so they enter the store one, but I think they’re starting to catch on.
    Leah, that’s exactly the kind of stuff I’ve been thinking about more and more lately.
    John, I’ve run into this issue, too. I always thought the zip code was for GIS/demographic types of data, and sometimes I’ll give the one for the town over from me. One of the few Google services I’ve wholeheartedly embraced is Google Voice because it essentially gives me a throwaway phone number that I can use in exactly these kinds of situations. I use it for all of my shopping/ordering transactions now, because I don’t care if Google knows about the solicitations these companies are calling me with. I highly recommend this approach (hmmm… another blog post – how do we game these systems?).
    Thanks for the great comments, everyone!

    Comment by jenny — January 27, 2010 @ 10:46 pm

  6. Our Internet providers know every site we visit, every keystroke we enter, every credit card number, every purchase, every bill we pay online, all of our email accounts, blogs, rss feeds, etc. They are the ultimate big brother. Our passports now have an RFID chip in them to track us. I wrote a check to K-Mart and the clerk literally took my drivers license out of my hand and entered my birthdate into the cash register. Nintendo Corp. or Sony, or whichever game platform you prefer knows what games we play on our WIIs and playstations, when we are playing them, and where. And, of course, there is the school alumni association, which makes the CIA and FBI look feeble when it comes to tracking me wherever I am at fund-raising time.

    Comment by Deb — January 28, 2010 @ 7:53 am

  7. […] You Don’t Know Me   Leave a Comment […]

    Pingback by Friday Link Round Up « ellie <3 libraries — February 5, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

  8. The first person I ever knew who “sounded the alarm” on our campus about corporate takeovers and consequent loss of both privacy and many streams of information–was our librarian!

    Comment by Shelley — February 16, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

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