The revelations about the NSA spying on American citizens came as a surprise to most people, but the data that corporations and big business collect on each and every one of us makes government sleuths look like rank amateurs. This study by MIT, which actually started out as a class project, is enlightening — in a scary kind of way — about how much big business can glean about you just from social media.
Yet your online life is only the tip of the information iceberg; now add to that your credit report, public property records, cell phone data, driver’s license, and purchasing information from your bank and online retailers, and you get an idea of the scope of what companies like Acxiom, which you may likely never have heard of, may know about you.
Your legal protections against this type of privacy invasion are limited; while there are laws governing the handling of your credit report, there are few laws governing what big business can learn about you and what they can do with that information. If you’re counting on the government for help, forget about it. The government is more likely to be buying information about you from those very same companies.
So, what can you do against such rich, powerful, and well-organized enemies of your personal privacy? The information that companies collect may be wide in scope, but it all counts on people not deliberately trying to poison the data well. The system for collecting your data is designed to manage small discrepancies, like a transposed digit in your telephone number or the difference between “Ave” and spelling out “Avenue”, but it’s much more difficult to rationalize purposeful attempts to obscure your own data.
The tips I’m about to share are for poisoning your consumer data, not attempting to aid someone’s flight from prosecution or avoiding debt collectors, for which these tips will not be that useful.
Get a Google Voice Phone Number
Google Voice is a free service that lets you hand out a phone number that rings back to your actual home or cell phone. You can request almost any area code you wish and, for a small fee, even have more than one number. You can choose to call companies directly, or dial out through Google Voice and only your GV phone number will show. Your home phone number is a powerful tool for keeping tabs on you, and Google Voice allows you really confuse your consumer phone number data. The best part is Voice numbers can’t be bypassed, like the privacy services you buy from the phone company.
Switch to Prepaid Cell Phones
The great thing about handing out your Google Voice phone number is you can switch to prepaid cell phones, and change phone numbers on a whim. All you have to do is tell Voice your new number, and there’s no need to notify friends and coworkers of the change. Voice can even ring more than one phone when you get a call, so you can have one cell phone for home, one for the car, and a different one for the office, if you want to go that far in being difficult to track.
Sign Up For a Mail Forwarding Service
I learned about this one when my wife and I lived on the road for a number of years, researching my book on full-time RV living. There are services, like Good Sam Mail Services for mobile people, that will act as your mailing address, and then forward mail and even packages to your street address, or hold your mail if you’re traveling. As an added bonus, Good Sam will shred your junk mail for you, unless you specifically ask to have it forwarded. This handy service, which can totally obscure your actual mailing address from retailers, costs as little as $9 a month, plus postage. The premium service, which is closer to $30 a month, will scan your mail and email it to you the day it arrives so you don’t have to deal with the paper at all.
Use “Wild Weasel” Software Tools
There are software tools that will give you a bit more privacy online. Tools like AdBlock, Ghostery, and FlashBlock can make it more difficult for companies to follow you around on the Internet. Though not perfect, they will help cloud your online trail without making it inconvenient to shop and work online. It’s also helpful to use more than one web browser, and install tools like TOR, if you really want to hide your online tracks.
Have More Than One Birthday In Social Media
I have three birthdays I use online, none of which are the actual day (happy birthday to me!). Most sites are just checking to see if you’re 18, so there’s no need to give them the actual date. Wait a few days to post birthday party pictures online to further obscure the real day. Using different dates on different social media platforms will cloud your personal data, and make it more difficult to match records and pool data from social media sites.
These are just a few tricks for poisoning the data companies collect about you. From my perspective, as someone who was a database administrator for 10 years, I can tell you even these simple hacks will make your consumer record a jumbled mess — though do be aware that doing so can, in some situations, roll up to your credit reports and cause problems with your score. So be cautious where you employ these tricks if you still need credit. Whether it’s worth the effort or not, that’s entirely up to you.