Hacked, Tracked, and Blinkered
by Angie Littlefield
A flurry of e-mails alerted me. Individuals I didn’t know had joined something called a “household” on a loyalty card I have for a drugstore chain. I quickly went to my local store where the kind cosmetics lady looked up my receipts from December to see if I had redeemed points. I had. I promptly consigned the new members of my “household,” Hema and Nakita (whoever they were), to trash.
When I returned from an August trip into the Wi-Fi-free Canadian hinterlands, I found that Hema and Nakita had returned. This time they had brought Bacem, Nicole, and Zaker with them. Who were these people, what was a “household,” and why were these people in mine?
I looked in my account to discover that all but 428 of my 180,000-plus points had been redeemed. That translates to about $180 stolen from my account. Righteously indignant, I contacted customer service at the drugstore chain, where a sweet person told me those fraudulently in my “household” would be removed and my points restored after a proper investigation. In less than 24 hours, however, that “proper” investigation determined that I had redeemed all 180,000 points. Well, I hadn’t, but that didn’t seem to matter! There was no talk of restored points or justice meted out to those fraudsters who had hacked their way into my account.
The lesson was clear: Loyalty points of all ilk need to be checked regularly or spent regularly. Large numbers of points are tempting for fraud. My best guess was that Hema et al. had hacked one of my easier accounts and tried that password on my loyalty card, where it also worked. Like most seniors, I forget passwords and tend to use the same one for several accounts. The “bad actors” waited for me to acquire points. I’ve put a reminder on my calendar to change all passwords monthly.
By an odd coincidence, I had already started to look at the phenomena of tracking and data mining. I knew that every move that anyone made that involved Wi-Fi was tracked. The loyalty card hack confirmed that. A report on the site www.wearesocial.com, “Digital 2020: Global Digital Overview,” indicated that of the 7.75 billion urbanized human beings on this earth, 5.19 billion had a unique mobile phone number, 4.54 billion were internet users, and 3.8 billion were active on social media. Bonus for the multi-billion-dollar data-mining industry. This new field, I discovered, uses automated web crawlers, or bots, to capture this abundant data and employs analytics to slice and dice it. The data miners then sell it to businesses for marketing purposes. The new jargon calls it “business intelligence.”
Another article, “How Web Data Extraction is used in Business Intelligence” (www.mediastreet.com), showed businesses how social, price, brand, and product “intelligence” boost sales—using information derived from snooping on you to sell to you. Another data-mining site offered to cull data from cloud services and cloud-based data warehouses. Oh, brave new world!
I knew that retail stores sold their e-mail lists, and I’d figured out my search history was sold. (Facebook had plied me with ads for a strap-on bidet for my toilet after I researched and wrote about latchkey incontinence for Silver Sage magazine). But data warehouses in the sky waiting to be tapped? Wow.
I started to look at what else was tracked. That’s when I noticed my news feed displayed a clear bias toward certain sites. Who was behind that? Well, I was. Each morning Google was presenting me with personalized news based on my clicking history.
Apparently, others were quicker than I to spot the narrowing of focus that “personalizing” meant. Agence France-Presse published an article in 2018, “Google New boosts AI to break down media ‘filter bubble’ that reinforces biases of the app’s users.” The article pointed out that, “Google is doubling down on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) for its updated news application as part of its effort to weed out disinformation and help user get viewpoints beyond their own ‘filter bubble’.”
Internet activist Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, New York, Penguin Press, 2011) had raised the alarm almost a decade ago that our views of the world were progressively being limited by algorithms and personal preferences that isolated us in our own ideological bubble.
Here are some tips for avoiding being hacked, tracked, and blinkered:
How to Avoid Getting Hacked:
- Change your passwords frequently.
- Have ready a printed list of 100 song titles, books, dog types, flowers—your choice. Change your password on an account and record the date changed. For example:
Themefromasummerplace, Amazon, September 9, 2020
Cathysclown, etsy, September 9, 2020
Runningbear, Estee Lauder, September 9, 2020
Don’t forget to change your browser password as well!
3. Scan your September list of passwords and save it into a file that is NOT called “Passwords,” but rather something like “Top Hits 0920,” “Top Books 0920,” etc. If you lose your piece of paper, you have a way to look up passwords.
4. Mark on your calendar the date when you will again change your passwords. Lots of work? Well yes, but not as much as fixing a hack or being the subject of identity theft.
How to Avoid Getting Tracked:
- Don’t accept cookies. Skip sites that force you accept them. Delete the cookies you’ve acquired.
- Figure out how to clear your search and browsing history. Practice browsing “hygiene” by frequent cleaning of your search or browsing history.
- Don’t give your e-mail address to retailers. Or have a “junk” email address you use for such requests, if needed.
- Turn off location, especially when travelling.
- Find the “Enhanced Tracking Protection” on your browser and click it ON.
- Use a free anti-tracking extension such as Adblock.
How to Avoid Getting Blinkered:
- “You are what you click.” To break out of the information bubble you yourself have created with your clicks, go wild: click on “education,” not “entertainment”; “science,” not “sports”; “cooking,” not “cars.” Change your political focus one week of every four and look at news in different states, provinces, and countries. The more you mix up your searches, the broader the information to which you will be exposed.
- To mix things up, take one of every three days on a social media platform such as Facebook or Instagram and don’t look at your posts that one day. Go instead to the list of your friends and click on someone from whom you haven’t heard in a while. Go through the posts on their page and click like on some of their postings. You will broaden who you see in your daily social media feed.
Most browser and social media sites now carry articles on security such as the one I found on Firefox, “Trackers and scripts Firefox blocks in Enhanced Tracking Protection”
A browser search for anti-tracking articles turned up: “Apple updates Safari’s anti-tracking tech with full third-party cookie blocking” https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/24/21192830/apple-safari-intelligent-tracking-privacy-full-third-party-cookie-blocking
The best defense against hacking, tracking and blinkering is to inform yourself.
And yes, I’m hoping that my search history for this article will turn up something other than “Tushy”!
Photo credit by: Andy Orin (NY, NY) @aorin.
Angie Littlefield is an author, curator, educator, and editor. She has written three books about Canadian artist Tom Thomson, the most recent of which is Tom Thomson’s Fine Kettle of Friends. Her eclectic interests include curating art exhibits in Canada and Germany and working with children from Nunavut and Tristan da Cunha to produce their books. Her other books include Ilse Salberg: Weimar Photographer, Angelika Hoerle: Comet of Cologne Dadaists, and The Art of Dissent: Willy Fick. She co-created www.readingandremembrance.ca, a website with lesson packages for Ontario educators. Angie lives in Toronto, Canada.