5 On Your Side

People as products: Companies pay to know what you do online

Posted May 10, 2016

— Every website you visit, every article you read, every sale you browse - data miners know.

“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold.” That quote, by software developer Andrew Lewis, puts everything we do online, into perspective.

Data miners track you and your habits because your information is worth money. Like many of us, Kathy Sorber sees the impact of data mining every time she is online.

"You are the product. There is a reason they are after you," Sorber said. "You look at Amazon something, and then all of a sudden there are three others similar...you click on this, look at this, then it's what about these shoes, what about this, so they track you a lot."

Richard Biever, Duke University's chief information security officer, said it’s too early to know the potential consequences of all the tracking.

"I still feel we are very early on in terms of understanding the impact to all the data about ourselves that's out there and how it can be collected and combined," Biever said.

He used the add-on Lightbeam to show WRAL's 5 On Your Side the enormity of the tracking.


The four circles represent the websites visited. The triangles show the connections happening between the sites that were initially visited. They’re the third-party sites that talk to one another and track a user’s movements.

"That is just for four sites and we have connected with 108 third-party sites," Biever said. And that was within just five minutes.

Companies pay for information mined from connections, including tidbits about our habits, likes, where we shop, and what gets us as consumers to click.

Consider Facebook.

"(Facebook's) product is the large population of people that use Facebook," Beiver said. "Their customer base are these networks and these groups that want data about what is happening on Facebook and the ad networks."

We as users grant permission in the often unread privacy policies. Most spell out the businesses' right to collect, combine and sell the data to third parties for almost any purpose.

"Are you OK with A) data getting out there, or are you OK with Facebook using that data and collecting statistics," Biever said. "And maybe you are. But that is a personal choice and you should have that decision and it should be explained to you in a way that you can make that decision."

But is there such a thing as privacy online?

Sorber doesn't think so.

"You have an illusion of something because you figure if you sign in with your password it is private," she said. "Until you go in and you find out maybe not as private as you thought."

Most apps, including Facebook, lay out how they use data. But you have to go find it, read it, and if you don't want to allow that access you have to change your settings.

Click here to read more on how to change your account settings.

The European Union just approved new online policy standards. One of the requirements is that individuals must give their clear and affirmative consent before private data is processed by companies or governments.


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