Your 'digital exhaust' is up for sale to marketers

- Some of the most common electronic devices (cell phones, tablets and televisions) are allowing marketers to gain access to the users' personal information, and much of that information is up for sale.


Millions of smart televisions have the capability to track the people who watch them.  They know what users watch, when, and for how long.

VIZIO televisions do it automatically when pulled right out of the box, unless a user knows how to turn off the tracking feature. The company sells information about viewing habits to clients like TV networks and advertisers.


A map app guides drivers through traffic but it's building a profile of everywhere the users travel. Some marketers will eventually use the information to try and make a sale based on driving patterns.


Facebook is tracking "likes" on it pages. It also scans photos looking for clues about the users’ buying habits. “If someone is pictured drinking a Coke on Facebook, Pepsi may figure that out and send a Pepsi offer,” said Tom Belle of Gage Digital Marketing.


Data brokers are collecting tons of information about people including their home addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, ages, number of kids, how much money they have and even their health statuses.

It's part of what privacy expert Pam Dixon calls our "digital exhaust."

Smart phones, tablets and televisions are constantly spewing out data that offer an insight into the patterns of our lives.

"What we buy, what we want to buy and how we live our lives every single day is up for sale," said Dixon.


Some retailers now have devices in their stores to detect the unique signals given off by cell phones.  They're keeping track of how often you visit and where you spend most of your time. Some of the tracking is accepted.

Target and Macy's have smartphone apps which allow customers who opt-in to get special deals.

Both companies are using devices called beacons within their stores which recognize when a phone with one of those apps is in or near a store.

It then sends out message alerts with offers to entice shoppers to pull out the plastic.

They're nudging people into buying things they would have never thought of before getting the alerts.


Other apps are collecting information users might not want them to have.  At a data security class at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Professor Bradley Rubin talked to his class about apps and how they might listen in on a person’s life.

"So what if you had an app that listens to what you're saying," said Rubin.

People may think they are downloading an app that does one thing, but it's also accessing a phone's microphone, contact list or photos.

How can someone tell if an app is snooping around in the phone?

Read the app's privacy policy. Some policies are fairly easy to understand; others full of legalese.  But it's where a person finds out what data is being collected and how it's being used.

If there's no privacy policy, walk away advises Dixon.

She really worries about health apps. Dixon found a mental health app that was collecting meta data from phones, not the actual conversations but information about who was being called, how often and for how long.

"What they told me in this particular case, the information was going to health researchers and also the U.S. Government in aggregate," said Dixon

That means the data doesn't have identifying information about the cell phone's user.  It's a claim that people will see in lots of privacy policies.

"Here's the problem with that, added Dixon.  "Aggregate information can be re-identified specifically to you, especially when it's coming off of your mobile phone,"

Researchers at MIT looked at "anonymized" data from a million people and by comparing that to cell phone location signals were able to identify 95 percent of them.


Senator Al Franken is co-sponsoring legislation that would require data brokers to disclose what they know about us.

"There's obviously a lot money in this data," said Franken. "You have the right to find out what data exists about you, to see it and correct it if it's wrong."

Privacy experts also worry about how our data could be used against us.  It's easy to track details about the types of food people buy and their leisure activities. A health  insurance company could use that data in setting premium rates.

For more information:


Up Next:

  • Popular

  • Recent

Stories you may be interested in – includes advertiser stories