Edelman: Like Santa, Google and Amazon know what you did last night

’Tis the season! If you’re not done with your Christmas shopping, you’re probably hunting for that ideal stocking-stuffer, ornament or toy. If your gift uses electricity, there’s a pretty fair chance it’s connected to the internet — phones; doorbells with built-in cameras that talk to your phone; cameras that talk to phones; home thermostats; TVs; computers and tablets; and, of course, those ubiquitous Google or Amazon smart “devices.”

Many of these devices collect usage data that winds up in the data banks of their manufacturers. In particular, applications on your smartphone, especially social networking apps, collect pretty much everything they can find out about you, including your name, age, social contacts, likes, your favorite movies, restaurants and music. If you use a map application, your every movement can be tracked as long as your phone is turned on.


Google and the massive network of apps it owns, including YouTube, track your browsing history; places you’ve been to; the times you were there; the routes you took to get there; and, if you use an Android phone, your complete phone history — who you called or who called you, the times and duration of those calls. The information they gather is sufficiently valuable that Google just gives away all of those apps; it sells this data to advertisers, who then target you with ads designed to appeal to people with histories or purchasing patterns like yours.

Amazon says that it uses the data it collects only to help personalize the ads you receive, sharing it only among its sellers and presumably masking information that identifies you personally. But that isn’t very reassuring.

Most of us have heard of analytics, using computational tools to tease meaningful patterns in data. If you watch professional team sports like baseball or football, you’ve seen analytics at work: Baseball managers position players on the field based on computer analysis of opposing batters’ tendencies. Are those analyses worthwhile? Ask the Orioles’ Chris Davis. Look at the tendency charts of plays a football team’s opponents are likely to call at any point in the game. Do they work? Ask Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick.

It might be relatively benign for companies to sell the data they collect about you if it truly is untraceable. But it isn’t. In 2013, a researcher published “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere,” which you can find by Googling it (if you dare). That rather light-hearted paper uses math taught in college algebra to isolate key people in social networks without knowing a thing about the words they may have used or written. The data-mining and computational tools used by companies like Google and Amazon are much more sophisticated, and they can isolate social networking structures with frightening accuracy.

Last week, the New York Times published a story, “Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They’re Not Keeping It Secret.” Search for that one, too, if you dare. Discussing the metadata that your phone apps capture and pass back to the companies that own them, that article said, “Businesses say their interest is in the patterns, not the identities, that the data reveals about consumers. They note that the information apps collect is tied not to someone’s name or phone number but to a unique ID. But those with access to the raw data — including employees or clients — could still identify a person without consent.”

Google and Amazon both allow you to see what data they collect about you, and you have the right to opt out from it being collected. Most of us do not read the Terms of Use contracts, displayed in microscopic type when we download an app. Those contracts tell you that using the app means your data will be collected. A Google search for “actions to stop apps from collecting personal information” turns up about 501 million hits. Have fun reading them all.

My point here is that you or I shouldn’t have to work so hard to keep the most intimate details of our lives off the web. Consumer protection activists have been working to get government to pass one of those pesky restrictions on businesses that would require companies to get our permission to collect this kind of data. The revelations that so many companies — banks, hotels, retailers, even restaurants — have been hacked should make us much more security conscious, especially with all the electronica we’ll be giving and receiving next week.

And speaking of that, my best wishes for you and your families. Enjoy a happy holiday season — Merry Christmas, Kwanzaa, solstice, or whichever other traditions you observe.