Do Not Sell My Personal Information
How companies track us and what we can do about it
Have you noticed that you can no longer scroll through your social media feeds without encountering ad after ad, sometimes about things you were JUST talking about? Do you remember when this wasn’t the case? Up until a few years ago it was still possible to check Insta or Facebook and only see posts from the people you followed. That’s not true anymore. At some point corporations realized how easily they could get our data and sell it to other companies so that the latter could then constantly bombard us with ads. In our parents’ and grandparents’ time, billboards were seen as invasive because they would block out skylines in cities and loudly advertise products and political messages in public spaces. Now those ads are with us everywhere we go in our purses and pockets, and our information is being collected every time we use our phones in order to generate more ads that clog our feeds.
INFORMATION AS OWNERSHIP
For most of human history, whether it was by monarchs, aristocrats, religious institutions, or others, those who lacked power have been treated as disposable commodities meant to serve and uphold corrupt systems. This was done to benefit the people at the top so they could maintain their power and wealth at the cost of human life and dignity. In the 21st century what this looks like is especially insidious and pervasive: corporations obtaining our personal information to sell off to third parties. They do this when we download new apps, when we browse online stores, and when we’re just trying to see our friends’ latest life updates on social media. Our value as human beings is then reduced to how easily we can be convinced to spend money on products we don’t need.
Our personal information is used to sell us things, whether products, lifestyles, or ideas - through ads, companies tell us what is wrong with us and how we should spend our money to “fix” ourselves. We’ve known our information was being sold for a decade and concerns about internet privacy have existed since the internet’s inception. As soon as social media sites began picking up steam and getting extremely popular, they started collecting our data to make money, long before the ads in our feeds became so pervasive. Now, it’s no longer just big corporations taking and selling our personal information - just about every single website you visit could be tracking you and then selling what they discover to third parties.
WHAT CAN I DO?
If you live in a place where corporations have to ask your permission to collect your data, always select “Do Not Sell My Personal Information” on every popup that offers it. If you don’t live in a place like this, vote! Support political candidates who care about protecting user data. Vote with your money too - boycott or limit how much you buy from companies with a history of violating users’ rights, whose CEOs are wealthy while their lowest paid employees go hungry. In 2018 the state of California passed the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) in order to give Californians control over their personal information. Because of this act, companies advertising online in this state must obtain consent from users to sell this information to advertisers, though it’s been left up to those companies to figure out how to comply. Other states are pursuing this in varying degrees as well - depending which state you live in, you can contact your representatives to tell them you would support a bill protecting your privacy and personal information.
On a day-to-day basis, you can change your settings on your phone and/or computer to block cookies. This can affect how certain websites operate, but it will prevent them from collecting your information at the same time. Cookies are little pieces of data that websites collect and store, usually for things like remembering the items you put in a cart while browsing an online shop, but they are also used for tracking how you interact with the website. Companies want to know what you click on, how long you stay on a page, what ads you interact with, where your mouse or finger might hover, anything that can give them a clue how best to advertise to you. Turning off cookies might cause you slight inconvenience, but if you want to make it harder for companies to track you, it’s another way you can protect your privacy.
As a consumer, the best thing you can do is be informed. Know what information is being collected and how it will be used and why. Demand that companies who want your information be held accountable, and call out those who behave suspiciously on social media. Share what you know within your network of friends, family, and colleagues - knowledge is most powerful when it’s shared. Educate yourself and know what your rights are and be a voice for the voiceless and those with less privilege. The more people who take the time to do these things, the more we are able to take power back and protect our personal information from being exploited.
Eve Jones is a cultural observer in the Bay Area who spends her time either disseminating helpful information or knitting clothes from vintage patterns. You can find her film photography and other work at evejones.org and her writing at eveish.medium.com.