As kids, I’m sure we all heard the phrase from an elder, “nothing in life is free.” Those words have never rang truer than in today’s use of Internet and mobile applications. The products and services we use every day have a price – even if it’s not monetary or immediately clear.

You’re the Product

“[a] person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.” This line of reasoning from a 1979 Supreme Court case is a chilling precedent for everyone in the Internet Age. Smith is one of many cases Google has used to legitimize its business practice of mass data retention across all of its services. Google provides us numerous free services, ranging from its search engine to YouTube and Android Software, and processes about 20 petabytes of data per day, or 1 million gigabytes. For reference, those 20 petabytes would be roughly equivalent to 400 million 4-door filing cabinets full of text or a stack of books that could reach half-way to the moon. However, Google is hardly the outlier in its data processing and retention. Other companies such as Facebook, Pinterest and LinkedIn are also amassing extraordinary amounts of data, and this data, your information, is what allows these companies to post billions of dollars in revenue every year. These companies are directly selling your personal data to data brokers and advertisers, while the services themselves use the data to present targeted ads based on what you search, like or post.

No Privacy

Ever wonder why an ad for a new jacket suddenly appears on every website you visit when you searched for it just once? Nearly every time you visit a web page, a file known as a cookie is stored on your computer or phone – tracking your usage and activities across the web. A Wall Street Journal article looked at the 50 most popular websites and found an average of 64 cookies were installed per website, with the most reaching an astounding 234 trackers from Wikipedia was the only one on the list that installed 0 trackers.

Targeted Advertising to the Next Level

Every device we use to connect to the Internet has a unique identifier – a phone has an IMEI or IMSI number, a computer  has an IP address and a Wi-Fi network card has a MAC address –Not only are companies able to see exactly which device you’re using when browsing their site but they also trace and catalogue the data. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported that by using cookies and location data, companies were able to charge more for the same products based on the types of devices people were using or the average income level based on their zip code.

Unfortunately, it’s not just our own activities that leak data. When friends and family enter information such as your birthday in a calendar app, he or she is providing your personal information to the provider. Even if you are not using Gmail, but send an email from your work email to a friend’s Gmail, Google is now a party to your conversation as it scans and categorizes content within an email for use in advertising. Google made $59 billion in consolidated revenue in 2013, and you got free email and a video of “keyboard cat.”

Click Carefully

What is more astounding is that we freely agree to this conduct when we click our agreement to those pesky terms of service (“ToS”). The average ToS for one of the “free” apps or services is about 2,518 words. The longest belongs to PayPal at 36,274 words. For comparison, Hamlet is 30,066 and Macbeth is a mere 18,110. It would be unreasonable to expect anyone to read the ToS, however, courts generally have held the “click” to be legally binding.

What might you be at risk of giving away when you click the checkbox?

  • The recording, analysis and storage of everything you speak to your virtual personal assistant.
  • The use of your pictures and likeness in advertising.
  • The irrevocable and perpetual access to any information you post – EVER
  • The ownership to work product you create using the application
  • Random access to your device’s microphone or video camera

So, before you click, it is good to heed the advice of our elders and decide how much we are willing to “pay” for the next “free” app. The infographic below, from Domo, illustrates just how much time we spend on social media.