All settled in? Got a good look at the screen? Thanks, in that thirty seconds or so, somebody learned a lot about you.
The Internet is a wonderful thing in many ways, but one way in which it's crappy is that increasingly, there's nowhere you can go that you won't leave a trail. And even the dumbest things are of value to somebody.
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If you use Foursquare, first, you should know that nobody you are friends with cares where you are or what fake mayor you've been made of the coffee shop down the street or the porn store you claim to never go to.
But people who want to sell you things? They want to know that. They want to know that very much: where you go, how long you stay there, preferably what you're doing there.
This is why Facebook lets your friends tell everybody where you are unless you do some very specific privacy gymnastics: that information is worth money. And even if they don't, you might notice that Facebook apps flip on your GPS and figure out where you are when you boot up the app...information you've allowed them to collect under the terms of service.
And soon they won't need that because the Internet will make it impossible to hide...
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There's a startup called SceneTap that guesses your age and gender by looking at your face. They don't store images of people or their "facial mapping metrics." Yet. But it's not only possible, it might be integrated with social networks to automatically log your location.
There are already services that use facial mapping metrics to find more images of whoever it may be. And, of course, there's the fact that Facebook can use your images for advertising if you agree to it, including your face. Not that you won't be made a pitchman anyway...
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One of the givens of online shopping is that your friends probably have at least somewhat similar tastes: they like the same music, the same movies, the same fifty-five gallon drum of water-based personal lubricant, things like that.
If that sounds overly specific, it happened to Nick Bergus, who posted it to his timeline as a joke and then found out that Amazon was paying Facebook to promote the fact he'd reviewed a huge container of lube.
And this is just the stuff you choose to share. Everything else is carefully tracked and sold constantly. They can even tie your credit card number to purchases, so we hope you only use one card for porn sites. But don't bother using one card for music...
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Ever wonder why you need to log in to Facebook to access Spotify? Or why Google is willing to let you store twenty thousand songs for free on their servers, that you can play through your browser? They want to know what you're listening to, what you buy, and how often you listen to it.
There's way more to this than just tailoring a radio station to your needs. Being able to directly target music is a service social networks and giant search engines like Google would dearly love to be able to do, but to do that, they need a massive amount of raw data to start testing methods on.
Soooo...guess how they're gathering it? And guess what else they want?
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There are many, many, many reasons to not get into a political argument on Facebook. One of them is that somebody, somewhere, is scrutinizing those opinions very closely.
One of the oldest and most popular databases on the Internet is Aristotle, which tracks registered voters. Everything about registered voters, from their affliation to their credit reports to their "links"...that is, people you probably know in real life, whether or not they're friends of yours on social networks.
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Here's how good Internet sites, especially retailers, are at using your purchasing history and behavior patterns on the Internet to sell you things: it can figure out if a woman is pregnant before she's told anybody. It can even figure out with a rough degree of accuracy when she's due.
Oh, it gets creepier. Way, way, way creepier. In theory, this can be extended to, say, figuring out you have problems like cancer, or autoimmune diseases, or who knows what else. Oh, and by the way? Your insurance company can purchase this information, if they want.
You might be wondering what the hell else the Internet could figure out about you, just from your day to day life. It's not like it can dictate your friends, at least.
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Yeah, Jure Leskovec can do it. True, not with extreme precision: he can nail it about fifty percent of the time.
But that's only due to relatively primitive algorithms and a lack of data. Needless to say, social networks love his work and are falling over themselves looking for ways to improve it. So the day's not so very far away when you'll go to a party and walk out with five Facebook friends already added...without having to touch your phone.
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(Originally published on May 30, 2012.)