As the old saying goes, "There is no such thing as a free lunch." So, do you ever wonder who is paying for all the free stuff on the internet - the 'free' web email, the 'free' maps, the 'free' apps? Well, that someone is none other than you. You are paying for it by sharing your personal data.
Each time you register for a website, think of the information you voluntarily share. You give them your name, age (or worse still, your date of birth), gender, languages known, etc. Then there are sites like Facebook that ask you if you are currently in a relationship, books and the music you like, the languages you speak, your school/college names, etc. As you start using the site, you put up photos of family members, sharing your moments of joy and sorrow. All this personal information shared, is useful for targeting products that you specifically ask for by clicking on them.
The free services are all paid for by advertising. The more targeted the message is to you, the more effective it is. That is what market research has always done. For every product, you need to understand the demographics of the customer i.e. name, age, income level, education level, etc. As research methodologies became more sophisticated, consumers are increasingly being profiled on psychographics- their interests, activities, and opinions. Then, there are behavioral variables such as usage rate or loyalty. All these data points can help to target a specific product or service ad towards the customer. So basically, we are voluntarily helping the companies build this database about us in exchange for free email or storage or videos.
Companies are constantly researching ways to tailor the ads to target the individual. Analytics can be of significant help here. Predictive models tell advertisers about the hot buttons they can press to trigger certain behaviors in individuals. The retailer Target was in the news recently when they shared how they could tell whether someone was pregnant based on their shopping habits and send them coupons for baby products and diapers.
Read more about how retailers use insights provided by the customers in my article, 'Trading off privacy.'
No one objects to the convenience of getting information that helps people do comparative shopping. Where that line gets blurred is when the ads get you to buy things you do not need or worse still, buy things you cannot afford, just because the marketer knows your vulnerabilities. What is worse is that you have no one to blame, because you volunteered all the personal details in exchange for free stuff. Think about it……..????