Anonymity is an illusion. If you think you’re anonymous online, help your landlady with her garbage, when you pay your taxes…. you’re not. Day to day, we largely exist in our own little bubbles, only interacting with those we choose to let in, but f you have a cell phone (smart or not), an Alexa or Google device, or if you check your email… ever… you’re not anonymous.
People are collections of data points. Anytime you spend money using a bank card, the product you purchased is logged and tracked by the store from which it was purchased and associated with your name or some other identifier. They may choose to share that information with product manufacturers and / or market researchers. Your bank can see (in some cases) what you’ve purchased and can keep a log of it. The credit provider to your bank can see that their customer’s customer has made the purchase. All of these purchases indicate that you’re a particular type of person based on what other purchases you’ve made. For instance…. you’ve purchased a bottle of Barefoot, a lean cuisine, some Motrin, and a single pint of ice cream. Odds are, you’re a woman who lives alone and you’re possibly on your cycle. Let’s say you purchase a couple of pizzas, a couple of family sized bags of corn chips and dips, a couple of three liter sodas or a 12 pack of beer, and condoms. You’re probably a man having a party and you’re hoping to hook up with one of the ladies there.
These are stereotypes, sure. Market research is rife with them… but the data doesn’t lie. Motrin is purchased mostly by women and usually just before the onset of or during period cramps. Condoms are almost exclusively purchased by men. The collection of party foods indicates a gathering while the purchase of a single microwave meal indicates solitude. Ice cream is comfort food indicating emotional or physical distress while two bags of corn chips are indicators of a party. It’s not 100% but nothing is and targeted ads are more often than not spot on. You are your data and your data is in the hands of pretty much everyone willing to pay for it by the time you get home from the store.
What can you do to limit your foot print? Not much. There will always be a shadow of YOU as you walk through life. You can make it vague by using a VPN to mask internet traffic on mobile devices, public wifi (always a good idea), or even at home. I’m usually connected to one so Comcast can’t see where I’m going and it makes my traffic useless to them. You can use cash more often which limits exposure form credit or bank institutions who routinely sell your data, but that’s so inconvenient as to be a non-option. Try using fast pay with paypal from your phone. Paypal is pretty good about not sharing your purchase data and most smart phones can be set up to pay at most registers. Don’t use your memberships or loyalty program numbers for grocery stores or restaurants. You won’t get those special member deals, but the point is not to get tracked and that fifteen cents off the case of green beans is the reward you get for letting the store track your purchases and you have to weigh the pros and cons.
You’ll never be anonymous. There is too much of your data that is available through public record. You can mitigate some of the damage done by taking just a few extra steps or being smart about usage. I personally don’t mind my data being farmed. It helps more than it hurts me in most cases. I would recommend a good VPN, though.