If you’re shocked to learn the internet isn’t a great place when it comes to your privacy, welcome to your first day online. Companies track everything you do when browsing the web, sometimes down to your individual keypresses and mouse clicks, and gobble up as much of your personal information as they can get their hands on. When you shop this Cyber Monday, and throughout the entire 2022 holiday season for that matter, know you aren’t just handing over your hard-earned dollars to retailers, you’re also giving out your data.
The problem with shopping online is there are so many points at which you can lose you data. There are the stores themselves, which collect as much as they can while you browse their sites. On top of that, there are third-party trackers that follow you around from site to site, building a profile of your browsing habits. Then there are third-party services like Honey that help improve the shopping experience or save you money, at the cost of yet more of your privacy and personal information.
Trackers are reporting on your activity everywhere you go online
After a visit to Macy’s website, Safari’s Privacy Report tells me it prevented 39 trackers from profiling me: a litany of creepy names like “tiqcdn.com” and “xg4ken.com” alongside familiar faces like Facebook, Yahoo, and Twitter. Six different Google trackers are attempting to follow me, including “google-analytics.com,” “google.com,” “googleadservices.com,” “googlesyndication.com,” “googletagmanager.com,” and “googletagservices.com.” (Don’t be evil, my ass.)
What do these trackers want to find out about me? Everything. Your browsing activity is invaluable to retailers and advertisers alike. And why wouldn’t it be? Here’s an opportunity to see how you respond to any retail situation. Trackers can see that you clicked on one shirt over another, that you opted for the pink option instead of the tan, or that you walked away with nothing when the items you wanted weren’t included in a sale.
That’s why profiling is such a big business. It’s not enough to know how a random customer behaves on one retail site. If they can tie that info to you, the 30-year-old New Yorker in finance who likes preppy apparel, they’ll be better able to target you with ads.
This happens year-round, from Christmastime to the middle of July. But companies know you’re going to be shopping a lot for Cyber Monday and the time surrounding it. Not only is it a big opportunity to sell you stuff, it’s a moment to collect as much data as they can from you while they do it.
Think about how much data you willingly provide companies when you shop. Depending on the store, you might hand over your name, shipping address, email address, phone number, age, and, of course, payment information. That is already a lot to share with a company, but much of it necessarily to facilitate a transaction. What isn’t necessary is sharing that data with a host of third-parties, which is exactly what stores like Macy’s do. They also employ the use of the above-mentioned trackers to collect data they otherwise couldn’t.
Third-party services like Rakuten steal your data, too
But you aren’t just buying things from the stores themselves. Often, we use other services to improve the shopping experience. Take Rakuten, for example. You might use services like it every time you shop, but it becomes particularly relevant during holiday deals. While you might earn a few percentage points back here and there throughout the year, Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals are insane. Rakuten is advertising as much as 20% cash back this year, which puts a pressure on the consumer to take advantage of these retroactive savings.
But it also stores more personal data than that, including your gender, age, household income, whether you considered buying something in the past, your interactions with their coupons (including views and clicks), geolocation, inferences about who you are, and, perhaps most surprising, email inbox data, if you created your account with Sign in With Google.
Worse yet, you likely agreed to allow Rakuten to sell this data. If you want to prevent that, you need to head into the privacy settings for your account and opt-out.
I’m picking on Rakuten because, despite the obvious data breaches, I still use their services (the cash back deal is really good this year). But other services you might use this Cyber Monday track you as well. If you break your payments up with something like Afterpay, they collect similar data as well. You could dive into the privacy policies for every retail website or third-party service you use, and you’ll likely find similar language about data collection. None of these companies want you to shop anonymously.
What can you do to preserve your privacy when shopping?
Again, this is all part of the nature of the internet. Unless you take serious steps to prevent it, when you’re online, you’re exposed, and you simply can’t prevent all of your data from escaping while shopping online. But there are steps you can take to help keep companies out of your business as much as possible.
If you’re shopping through companies’ or services’ apps on your phone, there are features to prevent tracking there as well. On your iPhone, you can head to Settings > Privacy & Security > Tracking and make sure “Allow Apps to Request to Track” is turned off. That way, shopping apps won’t be able to track your activity across other apps and sites on your phone. On Android, you can find a similar feature using the DuckDuckGo app.
To stop third-parties from accessing your email address, use a “Hide My Email” service instead. These services give websites and businesses a unique “burner” email, which then forwards to your main inbox. That way, no one ever sees your real email, but you still receive any and all important messages. Apple has this built-into iCloud+, and DuckDuckGo has its own version as well.
In general, try to limit the amount of data you offer companies. Use encrypted payment options like Apple Pay whenever offered, and don’t fill out any forms marked “optional.” It’s also not a bad idea to dive into the privacy settings for any site you have an account with. Make sure to opt out of selling your data when available, and plug up any other weird privacy leaks that may pop up. You’ll be surprised just how lax some of these services are with your data.
It takes quite a bit of work to stay private online. It’s much easier to roll with the default options, and allow companies and trackers access to all your data as you buy your presents. But with a little time and elbow grease, you can slow the spread of personal information online, and return to what the holidays are really all about: spending every last dime you have.
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