Editor's Note

Prying Eyes

Depressed. Shocked. Worried.

That was my reaction when the Consumers Digest project team that investigated the state of digital privacy sent me its report, “Under Siege: How to Protect Your Digital Privacy.”

From the Trump administration’s repeal of privacy regulations that would have been required of internet service providers, to so-called data brokers’ improved capability to track your location and movement, to consumers’ increasing use of Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri voice-controlled “personal assistants,” fewer and fewer elements of your private life remain private, unless you don’t use the internet or a mobile device, such as a smartphone or a tablet computer.

“Truly disturbing,” says Center for Digital Democracy’s Jeff Chester.

“Your life is public, and you have no control over it, and you have no idea how it’s being used,” Chester says. He adds, “Let’s remember, it’s about your family. It’s no longer a personal-privacy problem. It’s now a group—a community—privacy problem.”

David Vladeck is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Vladeck was the director of Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection from 2009 to 2012. At FTC, his department conducted research into data brokers, including canvassing the nine big data brokers at the time. From that effort, Vladeck and his team learned that these data brokers had as many as 6,000 data points, or facts, on individuals. “I’m sure that number has increased exponentially,” Vladeck says.

Data points are used in numerous ways, and many are bad from your and my perspective. The information is used by lenders, insurers and employers to draw inferences about us.

“At some point, we reach the point where, for everyone who’s part of the ‘digital economy,’ there would be information in databases that would be just ruinous, that would be mortifying, if it were ever made public,” Vladeck says.

Contributing to the problem: devices in your home, such as a smart TV and a personal assistant, that always are on—because that’s one of the ways that they provide their functionality—and, hence, always “listen” to your conversations.

Undoubtedly, this stinks and is unfair. However, also part of the equation and equally unfair, although on a different level, is that online retailers take all of this data and plug them into algorithms to produce prices that are tailored to individuals. How angry it makes me to know that a price that I find when I’m shopping for a product isn’t the price that is provided to every consumer, because the data might indicate that I’m more likely to buy a product than another consumer is and, therefore, the price might be higher for me.

In the same vein, “there were studies showing that if you used an Apple/Mac computer rather than a [PC], you’ll be charged a higher price,” Vladeck adds.

True to the mandate by which Consumers Digest has operated since it was established in 1960, our digital-privacy report provides not just the problem but solutions, too—nine of them, in fact—that will help you to protect yourself.

“The average American is going to be caught in a digital net, with their information being squeezed out 24/7,” Chester says.

Consider yourself now to be better than average.

Rich Dzierwa, Editor