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How Much of Your Privacy Are You Giving Away For Free?

Written by: Jennifer Jank, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


In the more conspiracy-related corners of the world, you might find dark suspicions about chips in the coronavirus vaccine or masks, on and offline. Of course, these concerns are posted to a social network using smartphones, which do, in fact, have tracking chips installed in them.

Surveillance is considered a part of daily life in some countries, and it’s often justified based on safety (we’re tracking the bad guys!) That’s certainly a justification for allowing the government to track their people. But many people don’t realize that big data allows even smaller companies to gather information on them, and safety has nothing to do with it.

Companies use data to target the audience directly

A few days ago, as I was contentedly drinking the Starbucks latte that I ordered through the Starbucks app, I started thinking about the app. Before COVID-19, I never used it. That was also before I broke my foot, so I’d often go walking down to the Starbucks in town without my phone on me. (I heard you gasp.)

Due to the pandemic, the store stopped allowing people to order inside, so I downloaded the app. I liked that I got free drinks from time to time and on my birthday. I took some of the Starbucks “challenges” to get more rewards.

As I thought about the app, I kept wondering why you have to opt into the challenge to get the rewards. Why can’t you just show up and get your drink? Starbucks does that for rewards on some days, but not for challenges.

You should know by now that if a company’s doing something, there’s a reason for it. Things don’t just randomly happen, especially at large companies. I suspected that they do it for data-gathering purposes, and that is exactly why.

Starbucks (or any company with a similar program) collects the data from the app, runs purchases through their algorithm, and tailors their offers to me and others who have the same buying behavior.

When I thought through the data they gathered, I actually felt a little uncomfortable. Though not enough to get me to stop using the app! I wasn’t sure at first why it was the Starbucks app that bothered me.

After all, I’ve been using the grocery store discount cards for years, knowing full well that the stores use the cards to track your purchases and gather data. But I don’t use the app, so I’ve never received much in the way of targeted offers. Especially since I don’t usually buy brand-name items at the grocery store, I might be more concerned if I used the app and constantly got challenges and rewards!

Granted, Starbucks and chain grocery stores are big ventures. But big data is trickling down to smaller companies too, in addition to the advertisers who create their sales and marketing campaigns.

Social networks use us to sell ads

They may refer to themselves as social media, but the driving force behind these online platforms is not human connection. That’s what we consumers use it for. The networks themselves are selling our attention.

It’s true that radio and TV also sell ad space and always have, but the line between the program and the ads is usually pretty bright. In addition, while each station would prefer that you give them all of your attention and try to keep you watching, they do it through programming and not by intentionally making their product addictive.

Social networks monetize our attention with no tangible benefits to us. At least with Starbucks and the grocery store, I earn something by giving them my data to use. Discounts and gas rewards add up. Granted, my data is quite a bit more valuable to the companies than the discounts, but it’s something!

But when it comes to social platforms, there’s nothing tangible in return from the company. To the extent that you find connecting with clients and friends valuable, there is some intangible benefit. But in response to their ad campaigns, advertisers and companies themselves get all the detail on what makes people click and buy online.

Companies use our brains against us

.Advertisers have always been in the persuasion business, and they’ve long known how to grab the audience’s attention. Well, before they had massive datasets and computers powerful enough to churn through them, advertisers understood how to use audience demographics to segment prospects.

They’ve known that emotion is what hooks people into being interested in a product. Not the features and benefits of the widget, but how it makes people feel.

Remember all those fast-food burger joint commercials that showed very attractive and scantily clad young women eating enormous burgers? They nailed their demographic: young men aged 18-35. If you didn’t enjoy those ads, you probably don’t spend a lot of time eating that type of food.

That’s pretty basic ad usage. Yet with big data, advertisers can narrow down not just the demographics of age, race, and gender but psychographics as well, which analyzes preferences and lifestyle.

That and sophisticated algorithms allow ad companies to target their campaigns very narrowly. I’m practically a stereotype myself: a white, middle-aged single woman with cats and a Toyota Prius. Guess who sees a lot of ads from companies who claim to be eco-conscious.

With the information available to them, a company can very easily run ads on social networks that show up on the feeds of female Prius drivers who are single and love cats. More importantly, they can analyze data to find out pretty specifically what appeals to this driver and what will prompt her to buy.

They’re not wasting money sending the same ads to young men 18-35 who drive sports cars and pickup trucks and keep dogs as protection, not pets.

To keep the advertisers happy, the main goal for social platforms is to keep people on that network. The longer people stay on, the longer the advertiser can get their ads in front of those specific eyeballs. Unlike traditional media, rather than finding programming to achieve the objective, social media uses what’s known about the brain to make their platforms addictive.

The brain operates through electrical and chemical signals. It’s evolved to encourage novelty-seeking, which gets us off our butts and exploring (which is how we ended up on nearly every continent on the planet.)

The human brain also prefers connection with other people because that’s how we survived on the African savannah. And to repeat pleasurable things. Doing something that the brain likes activates the reward system and prompts the release of pleasure neurochemicals such as dopamine.

Variable rewards especially tend to keep people and other animals performing behavior that has rewarded them in the past. Gambling is a good example of a variable reward system. Casinos let you sometimes win, so you’ll keep coming back. In the long run, as long as the owner isn’t a complete idiot, the house (casino owner) always wins.

Armed with all this knowledge about the human brain, social media companies have intentionally designed their platforms for variable rewards to keep you scrolling longer. That’s why you get pings and buzzes and other noises to distract you when you’re off the platform too.

Why you should care

What’s the big deal with allowing companies to track you online, whether or not you’re aware they’re doing it, and without disclosing to you what they’re tracking?

The more data you provide, anyone can learn (and infer) more information about you. Random companies you’ve never heard of know all about you and may target you for advertising, even using you to push their products without paying you. In other words, other people own your personal information, not you.

The more this type of intrusive data gathering is normalized, the more companies push for more data that may or may not be relevant when they request it. Privacy safeguards are easily overrun.

Hackers grow ever more sophisticated. They can steal your data to sell to the highest bidder, who will not have your personal welfare in mind, guaranteed. Some of it might be used for identity theft, or to steal banking and credit information, or for other purposes.

What you can do about it

Some people would say to get off social media platforms altogether. That’s definitely possible for individuals. If you use online networks to keep up with family and friends, you could actually call or visit people (after the pandemic is over) instead.

I’m not sure that entrepreneurs or anyone who owns a business can really afford to go offline. I’ve seen arguments that it can be done, but largely from businesspeople who made their money early on in the game and built their audience online before deciding to give it up.

If you’re new, or building your audience, or in a location where you can’t be profitable in your local market, I honestly don’t see that it’s possible. However, there are some ways you can minimize your loss of privacy.

1. Check your settings and monitor your information.

Limit how much the companies know about you. Don’t enter any info that isn’t required. Companies can use algorithms and your buying patterns to make reasonably good guesses on some of your psychographic data, but there’s no reason to give them any information beyond what’s absolutely necessary.

2. Be frugal.

I developed my own frugal habits before the advent of social media, but you can do it now. One of the tenets of frugal living is that you don’t go shopping unless you have something specific to buy. And you turn off any kind of one-click ordering.

Since I’m not usually looking to shop, I've found that I don’t actually pay a lot of attention to ads when they do pop up in my feeds.

3. Turn off notifications.

You don’t really need to know if someone has liked your post when you’re in the middle of anything else, even if you’re a business owner. Set up automated chatbots to take care of routine inquiries and then follow up at a time of your choosing.

If you don’t do business on social media, you have no reason to have notifications on your phone. You might even remove the apps entirely. While many people don’t want to go that far, you’ll find you’re much more productive when you’re not checking your phone every five seconds.

4. Limit your time.

Even when you’re relatively immune to ads, it’s pretty easy to go down the rabbit hole of social media and spend hours mindlessly scrolling. You can schedule social media posts for yourself or your business for any time during the day, so you only need to spend a short period of time on your platforms daily.

Have a reason and a time limit. Set your phone timer if you need to! If you’re intentional about the time you’re on the channel, you’ll be less likely to end up down the rabbit hole.

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and visit my website for more info!


Jennifer Jank, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Jennifer “JJ” Jank works with women who are making the leap from employee to entrepreneur through courses and a book to be published in February 2021. She also helps businesses build their online credibility through eBooks, testimonials, and articles.

JJ holds a BA in Physics from Rutgers University and an MBA in Finance from New York University. She is a Certified Financial Planner ™ professional. Currently, she’s the President for Women Leaders Forum in Coachella Valley and the webmistress for the Palm Springs chapter of AAUW. She is also a speaker on various topics, including personal finance and entrepreneurship.

JJ has been published in Journal for Divorce Financial Analysts and Coachella Valley Weekly, among others.





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