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Online monitoring: beyond the profile

Lucia Bosacoma, Executive Features Editor

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Photo by Chloe Carroll

With eyebrows raised and a smile of disbelief, he listens as his phone recites every command ever given to his Amazon Echo, a speaker that responds to verbal commands. Senior Ari Nadler has discovered that the Echo’s voice recognition software, Alexa, stores recordings of all commands ever given to it, which can be played back and listened to with the Alexa phone application. He does not feel that the storage of this information is a breach of his privacy.

“My relationship with the Alexa is kind of built on trust and the fact that [my information] is not going to end up anywhere it shouldn’t be,” said Nadler. “If something were to come out that shows Amazon wasn’t securing that information or was releasing some of that, then they would definitely lose my trust.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on this story regarding whether or not they utilize the information stored on the Echo.

The Echo is one of many devices that collects and stores data about its users. Many social media platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, collect user data as well.

Joseph Jerome, policy counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in a phone interview that social media companies process and sift through an abundance of sensitive personal information.

“[Companies have access to] names, e-mail addresses and passwords,” said Jerome. “And then that sort of broadens out to include things like photos, connections, contact lists and your geolocation, … and that’s all information that can be associated with [a] profile.”

Attorney Marci Rozen, who works for ZwillGen, a law firm that counsels internet and technology companies, said in a phone interview that many people have skewed ideas about social media company policies.

“The terms of service are often misunderstood by people.

“What [social media companies] are really interested in is analyzing the data you post and using that for advertising purposes,” Rozen said.

One way social media sites use the information they collect about their users is to display advertisements which correspond to users’ interests, according to Rozen. These interests are reflected in a user’s friends and followers on social media, their search history on other sites, their search history on the social media platform they are using and the types of posts the user “likes.”

“A lot of times, when [social media companies] have data about you, it’s not associated with your name personally,” said Rozen. “They associate you with an anonymous … number. So to them, there’s all this data they’re collecting about you, like what you click on across sites.

“Every time you visit a page, they don’t care that [you are] visiting a page. They care that, ‘Oh, this number clicked on this ad, so we want to show this kind of ad again.’”

Social media companies collect data from sites by sending small files called cookies onto people’s browsers, according to Rozen. Cookies collect information about browsing history on other sites and send the data back to the social media site. The site’s “ad platform” can then use the collected information to generate advertisements specific to each person.

“Facebook, for instance, has a very large Facebook ad platform based on cookies,” said Rozen. “And if you have cookies enabled, Facebook can kind of see your activity across sites … which [determines] the [advertising] content we get on Facebook. That’s why if you’re on Facebook, you might see an ad for shoes if you’ve been browsing for shoes on a department store website.”

According to Jerome, consumers suffer when the information being collected by social media organizations is used in an exploitative way or falls into ill-intentioned hands.

“I mean, if you look at something like Equifax, which is in the news, hackers can do all sorts of terrible things when they have Social Security numbers,” said Jerome. “Now, social media companies aren’t in the business of collecting Social Security numbers, but they are collecting [a lot of information], and if you have access to all of that, you can uncover a lot about people that other individuals might not otherwise know.

To increase the privacy and safety of information, Jerome recommends that people secure personal e-mails with strong passwords, disallow apps from tracking location, press the “like” button on a variety of pages to confuse advertising algorithms and adjust settings on electronic devices to limit tracking, such as disabling cookies in a web browser’s settings.

According to Nadler, his mentality towards the Echo is similar to his stance on social media data collection: he will trust the companies until they give him a reason not to.

“I trust social media companies to responsibly collect my data for business and marketing purposes.

“As long as businesses are responsible, I don’t have a problem with [data collection],” Nadler said.

According to Jerome, the amount of information social media organizations are gathering is unnecessary.

“We very much live in a universe now where I think companies, to their detriment, have a ‘collect all’ mentality,” said Jerome. “They want to collect all sorts of information whether or not it’s actually useful to them, whether it’s useful to the development of future products, or whether it’s useful for their consumers.”

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Online monitoring: beyond the profile