Snooping on Steroids: your privacy on sale

Have you ever had a snoopy neighbour, coworker, or relative who made it their business to know where you were going, what you were doing, and who you were doing it with? Maybe they asked a lot of questions, or snooped in your drawers or computer or even checked your mobile phone.

Well if you’re on the Internet today, you’re probably being surveilled more thoroughly than your little sister or your ex-girlfriend, or even your mom ever did.

How tracking and following works

“Tracking” or “following” occurs when companies employ technology to record your viewing history and online activity. Then you see unexpected pop-ups or sidebar advertisements on Facebook, Snapchat or other social media platforms appear, showing deals for items you have browsed on Amazon or Google.

Mildly annoying at first, the sudden onslaught of ads based on your personal preferences becomes downright creepy. 

What kind of information is being record, saved and used for other purposes? While the degree and depth of snooping varies according to the app or website, here are some possibilities:

  • Personal information such as passwords, access codes
  • Website visits and views, including time spent on the page
  • Clicks, “likes” and “shares”
  • Shopping cart storage and browsing
  • Online purchases
  • Voice recordings (i.e. on Google)
  • Sent messages, photos and videos
  • Your location

Dr. Andrew Hilts, at the 2017 Data Privacy Activism panel at Brock University presented a simple (!) analysis of these connections and risks:

Created by Giulia Forsythe, Behind the Screen by @andrewchilts;
attribution: 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

The super sleuths – our frenemies!

Here are some prime examples of how some of our favourite apps and technologies are using super-sleuthing techniques:

Google has a tracking program that creates “a profile Google has built for you based on your search history, Youtube history and interests.

  • Check your Google Profile settings to see your personal information that has been stored
  • According to Becca Caddy (2017), Google records your location, specific dates and times, specific technologies you’ve used (i.e. phone, tablet, computer).

Facebook uses aggressive technologies that track and record its members’ viewing habits, website visits and time spent, “likes” and “shares”, and a variety of other online activities.

  • According to Nate Hanson (2016), all this personal information is funnelled into databases and then Facebook employs “algorithms to show you the exact stories and videos they know you will click on”: targeted advertisements.
  • Facebook’s goal is to encourage you to spend more time on its own website.

WhatsApp is a free text messaging app that also uses targeted advertising; you can “turn off” the information sharing in the settings.

  • WhatsApp has been acquired by Facebook, so the two share information.
  • Taylor Martin (2016) on CNET, says that“end-to-end encryption will not allow Facebook to see your messages, photos or other media you share”.  (hmmm, not sure about this!)
  • Apparently you can opt out of information sharing by changing the WhatsApp setting on your phone.

Physical stores can also track your shopping behaviours:

  • open wifi networks in malls and coffee shops can be used to record customer’s patterns: for example, which aisles you visit in a store.
  • Store loyalty cards can be used to track purchases.
  • According to Abigail Pesta (2017) on Real Simple, this information can then be sold to third party brokers who then sell it to marketers.

Spamming: Bob Sullivan (2013) on NBC News reported that one of the worst technologies:

  • software that contains spyware or viruses that embed themselves in your computer/mobile device and store copies of everything on the computer; the information can then be secretly e-mailed to the mastermind spy regularly.
  • recent viruses that shut down hospitals across England in spring 2017,
  • Canadians have received fraudulent emails allegedly from Canada Post, the Canada Revenue Agency and various banks.

Protecting yourself – going incognito

So what can you do if you don’t want your personal information tracked, stored and accessed for a variety of purposes?

Many technology specialists have some suggestions to avoid being tracked, or having your information unknowingly recorded and shared or sold. Asli Omur (2017), provides some great suggestions on

  • Change your privacy or sharing settings and options on your computer, mobile phone or device
  • Read “terms and conditions” carefully on any apps or websites you visit
  • shut your device off when you’re not using it
  • Clear your browsing history daily or hourly
  • Store all of your personal files and documents on a separate, secure harddrive
  • Have a variety of emails, including one for shopping or browsing so that suspect emails can be sent there without affecting your regular email on your computer/mobile device
  • Limit your sharing on social media apps like Facebook to those people you now; remove and block contacts you don’t know
  • Set pop-up blockers, adblockers
  • Download an IP scrambler like Tor or Tails; this will scramble your online and physical identity, maintaining your personal freedom and privacy Tor:
  • Tails:

Surveillance fatigue

Many people today know that their choices, viewings, purchases and anything else that happens online is being tracked, stored and accessed by organizations they don’t know about, without their permission. And many people are okay with this.  As long as they can access their browsing or purchase history online, they’re alright with it.

Remember, there’s always someone watching!

TMI on the web

When is this subtle invasion like ants at a picnic more than annoying?

Image created by Bernard Goldbach: The Internet and Privacy Venn Diagram.
Shared from


Too much information: when one’s personal browsing history and information is shared with others who seek to use your personal information to access bank accounts, set up social media in your name, and otherwise use parts of your identity or social tools to become you, whether it’s a social you, educational you, working you or financial you.

Asli Omur’s final option may be appealing to the truly cautious and private individual: “use only paper, pen, typewriters and in-person chats and photo-sharing, the old-fashioned way”.

Two People - Business Meeting

Created by Stephen D, Digital Desktop Wallpaper, August 3, 2009. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0). Source:

Sources / More information:

Anderson, M. Arbel, T. & Ortutay, B.  (2017, March 8).  Should you worry about wikileaks CIA hacking.  The Associated Press.  Tech News, Toronto Sun. Retrieved from

Caddy, B. (March 20, 2017).  Google tracks everything you do: here’s how to delete it.  Wired Technology.  Retrieved from

Hanson, N. (2015).  How to stop facebook from tracking all your web activitiy.  Huffpost.

Omur, A. (n.d.). Big Brother is watching you online: how to avoid being tracked.  Lifehack.  Retrieved from

Pesta, A. (2014).  Are you being tracked online? Stop Facebook from using your web history for ad targeting.  Wired.  Retrieved from

Sullivan, B. (2017).  Are you being watched online?  NBC News. Retrieved from



4 thoughts on “Snooping on Steroids: your privacy on sale

  1. Great research and information.

    While I was certainly aware of many of the ways different websites and apps were tracking my searches, purchases, etc. I wasn’t aware of all of the ways you mentioned. This definitely has me curious about some of the apps I’m using and is making me think about being more diligent about following some of your tips for protecting myself.

    Thanks for sharing this blog post – I found it very interesting!

  2. Hi Snowyowls,

    I find it awful how people just find it okay to share other peoples information as long as they are making some money. I didn’t know about all of these ways to protect myself against my information being recorded. I will definitely use some of the tips you have posted here.



  3. Hi Snowyowls!

    Very interesting read. It is quite alarming that people really aren’t aware of these things. When you sign up for a google account, you are giving google the rights to all your emails you send and receive. Google also has a feature called ‘Google Adwords’. They will track what you search in google, and provide you with sponsored ads on the websites you visit. You’ll also notice Facebook sponsored posts based on Google Adwords as well.

    Thanks you! Looking forward to your next blog post!


  4. Good advice Kim. People really should arm themselves with knowledge about how their information is being used, who has access to it, and how to adjust their settings. I have a few friends who have stopped using some social media and also loyalty cards due to their information being “shared” without their knowledge.

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