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How Do Our Computers Know So Much About Us?

Some people are entirely convinced that the devices we carry around with us or that are popping up in homes everywhere are surreptitiously activating their microphones and listening to our conversations. It’s the only way, they contend, that your Facebook feed could suddenly show you posts regarding the latest kitchen gadget the same night you and a friend talk about the device. Or how Google ads are suddenly showing discounts on car repair after you and a co-worker discussed their recent car repair woes. Or possibly you start seeing advertisements online for flooring materials during the remodel of your workplace, and you can’t seem to figure out why?

The truth is a bit less scary (and at the same time MUCH more frightening) than our playing the role of “Big Brother.” A much more plausible, albeit intimidating answer for this seemingly unexplainable coincidences is big data. Companies routinely purchase customer information from an expanding pool of data warehouses. And while a majority of it is anonymous, the quantity of data is of such volume that it can point to significant trends and habits. So, while you may not be interested in the latest kitchen tool, you more than likely have a friend who is. That friend may spend time online researching and learning about the device and then run across you in some public space and tell you all about it.

While the phone in your pocket or purse is most likely NOT recording your conversations, it is most definitely keeping tabs on its location and in turn, on your whereabouts. Even if you were to turn off the GPS tracker included in every new device today, it still could estimate reasonably accurately where it is since it needs to “talk” to the local cell towers. Otherwise, when your spouse attempts to call you, they wouldn’t be able to get through. Modern cell phones use the local towers it can reach, does some math to figure out how far away from each tower it is, and then uses that information to determine its position. So, when you and a friend are talking, it knows you are both in the same location, at the same time and surmises that you very well could have been talking to each other. It then deduces further that if you two were talking, and this morning your friend was looking up the kitchen tool, there is a good chance he or she shared it with you in your conversation, and thus you may now be curious about it, so it shows you an ad.

For the car repair example above, you and your work buddy may share the occasional humorous email. It’s common knowledge that most larger email providers have bots (robots designed to skim emails for keywords and phrases) that routinely review the content of your email to help “enhance” your experience. These same bots are also able to see who sends emails to whom, which emails are opened and read, and which emails then get sent on to more people. All of this data provides the email service with a ton of information, quite likely way more than you realize. If you and Joe have ever emailed back and forth, it makes educated guesses and starts showing you things that Joe has researched or reviewed via his online account.

In the scenario regarding the flooring, maybe you have a business email address similar to, and your boss has Again, the email provider (and all the various systems that email ends up passing through while en route to your mailbox) could capture that information. But, you may say, I got the ad for flooring on my non-work email, and I never check my non-work email at work, and my employer never emails me at this address. Did you ever send yourself an email from work because it had some information you wanted to review from home? Once again big data collection would store that knowledge. It would see that emails and that has forwarded (possibly numerous times) emails to another email address. It then concludes that your private email and work email is owned by the same end user and starts showing similar ads on both accounts.

When you send an email, it crosses over five, 10, 20 or even hundreds of different mail servers before reaching its intended recipient. Email is sent entirely unencrypted and readable by every server it passes through, and thus, any one of the owners of those servers could be offsetting the cost of operating the server by selling the data it collects. That information is then resold over and over.

It’s not all a negative result as there are merits to it. Would you rather see advertising for a product or service in which you have absolutely no interest? Or would you prefer instead to have an ad that might be at least mildly useful? So many people want things free or at no cost, but all of those services cost money to someone, and those people have a right to cover those expenses in whatever method they are able. If you want even to hope to maintain an unmonitored email account, don’t expect that from some free email service you are utilizing. Staying anonymous in today’s world is virtually impossible. Keeping yourself slightly below the radar is possible, but only if you are diligent and willing to pay for the services you utilize. QCBN


By Greg Hicks


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