Is It Still Spying If You Approved It?

Online privacy is a hot issue. People expect to be able to surf the Web and use the Internet without compromising their privacy in the process, but the sites and services people use may be monitoring their online behavior. This may seem like an infringement of privacy to some, however, what they don’t realize is that they agreed to be watched.

The average Internet user visits more than 2,500 websites and online services per month. Virtually every one of them has a privacy policy of some sort. You might have to dig (a lot) to actually find it, but it’s there somewhere. By visiting the site or using the service you’re tacitly agreeing to the terms of the privacy policy whether you read it or not.

How many privacy policies have you read from beginning to end? Probably zero. One source reports that legal and tech researchers estimate it would take an entire month to read all of the privacy policies for the sites an average person visits in a year. Are you willing to invest that kind of time? Of course not.

Nobody is really--unless they’re a legal or tech researcher getting paid to do so--and the sites and services know that up front. They know that they can bury shady activity and surreptitious monitoring of online activity into the privacy policy because nobody is going to read it, and the use of the site or service signals your acceptance of the policy and gives silent consent for them to engage in spying on you.

In many cases, the information gathered isn’t even used by the site itself. It is collected as a side business and sold to third-party data brokers who then correlate and analyze the data to paint demographic pictures that can be marketed to advertisers, health insurers, and other entities.

Internet service providers, search engines, email services, and other online services may all be monitoring your online behavior. They know where you connect from, the type of device or operating system you use, whom you communicate with, the information you seek online, and the websites you visit. It’s OK that they collect such data, though; because you agreed to it when you accepted the privacy policy you didn’t read.

What should you do? Or--better yet--what can you do? Technically, you should read the privacy policies so you know what you’re getting into. That’s time consuming, and highly impractical, though.

Instead, try to limit your online activity to sites and services you trust. Those sites and services are most likely monitoring your activity to some extent as well, but a reputable website will use the information only for its own purposes to improve the experience for you as opposed to selling it to the highest bidder (or all of the bidders).

If you’d like to shield your online activity from spying, you can use the private browsing mode of your Web browser. All of the major browsers have an optional mode that prevents tracking cookies and wipes the browser history to conceal your online tracks.

recommended for you

How to Divorce Google

Read more »

Subscribe to the The Advisor Newsletter