Your Phone is Divulging More Information Than You Think

It is no secret that the NSA is, or is at least capable of, tracking your every move. Many people also realize that advertisers have a lot more access to tracking you than you'd think (or like), but most people do not.

Your phone is constantly connected to cellular towers, scanning for WiFi, and in some cases searching for Bluetooth. To make wireless connections, a handshake of sorts has to take place. This handshake includes some indentifiers to tell the source who you are. This information isn't your name or email address, but a MAC address is unique enough to pretty easily trace you as an individual.

Combine that with using free WiFi to log into Facebook or Twitter, and you've just told an advertiser your name, email address, and MAC address. Any other hotspot you walk by or log into knows exactly who you are, what your internet browsing habits are, and even when you've been. This technology allows companies to know a lot about you.

"Locations have meanings," says Eloise Gratton, a privacy lawyer. Marketers can infer that a person has a certain disease from their Internet searches. A geolocation company can actually see the person visiting the doctor, "making the inference that the individual has this disease probably even more accurate," she says.

It doesn't stop here though. Once the data is collected, it is immensely valuable, why else would it be collected? The sale of the data is often more concerning than the collection of it.

Viasense Inc., another Toronto startup, is building detailed dossiers of people's lifestyles by merging location data with those from other sources, including marketing firms. The company follows between 3 million and 6 million devices each day in a 400-kilometer radius surrounding Toronto. It buys bulk phone-signal data from Canada's national cellphone carriers. Viasense's algorithms then break those users into lifestyle categories based on their daily travels, which it says it can track down to the square meter.

I added the emphasis myself to highlight how prevalent this is. We aren't talking about shady back-alley operations here, this data is bought and sold by major corporations including your cell phone provider that can pin point your exact location at any time any day since you signed up for the service.

This isn't to say that there is no potential benefit to being tracked. There are some regulations on what is bought and sold and to whom, though the laws tend to lag the technology. There is some upside to this data being available to advertisers. For ages we have considered ads to be annoyances. This largely stems from the fact that ads are generic and meant for large audiences. However, we're all consumers, we all buy things, so what if the ads we got were genuinely meaningful and saved us money on things we need or want? These highly specific targeted ads are only possible if the advertiser knows a creepy amount about you.

There is no substitute for being educated to understand what you're sharing and when.