Opening Promotional Emails = More Promotional Emails

emailMany people might not know this, but nestled inside every promotional email is a hidden pixel, a tiny 1 pixel image that’s the same color as the email background, that serves an important purpose for every email marketing campaign: tracking and collecting user data. Since every image lives in some nebulous server space with a requisite URL, you can use analytics programs to gather tons of important data about those opening your newsletters and promotions, including geographic location, whether you clicked on any links, when you clicked, what you clicked, how long you stayed on the website after clicking, whether you’ve made a purchase within a set time frame of opening the email and clicking a link, etc. All of this is used to collate a pattern of behavior in order to better market and advertise to you via email. Believe it or not, it’s standard practice, and it’s rather ingenious. You only want to receive emails about topics and products relevant to your interests, right? This method of tailoring content based on your consumer behavior ensures relevancy in the long run. For those who don’t want their behavior tracked, there’s always the option of opening text-only versions of emails.

So what happens when you don’t open promotional emails and newsletters? After a while you get taken off the main mailing list and put on a sub-list that will be targeted with a more significant incentive to purchase. This can come in the form of a coupon code, an exclusive but time-sensitive sale, or it can simply be a reminder email asking where you’ve been. If you’re familiar with the email marketing process, it might actually benefit you to open the first few promotional emails you get from a company you’ve signed up with to trigger the tracking pixel, then waiting a few weeks for them to send you a better deal. One of the most important goals of email marketing is customer retention; you might even notice additional incentives thrown your way when you try to unsubscribe from promotional emails!

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from opening promotional emails – not at all! There’s a reason why you signed up for them in the first place! Open the ones you want to keep receiving and unsubscribe from those you don’t want to hear from anymore. Additional Tip: If you didn’t sign up for something but you receive emails from a sketchy source, block them. Clicking the unsubscribe button they provide might only exacerbate your SPAM problem!

Are Your Apps Compromising Your Privacy?

The world has gone mobile, and that means millions of apps are being installed every day on smart phones, tablets, and other devices that rely on Internet access. What most people don’t know is that when they download an app, they are subject to user agreements that allow the owners of the apps to collect personal and private data that will be shared with advertisers. You might think that apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms would be the worst offenders, but according to Forbes staff Parmy Olson, the worst offenders are actually games like Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds. Locational data is one of the things these apps collect. The game developer doesn’t care where you play, but the advertisers who pay the game developers to include their ads in the app most definitely do.

App Grades

PrivacyGrade.org Database Scores on User Expectations VS Actual App Behavior.

You might’ve noticed that apps nowadays will inform you about what type of data they collect before you finish installing it. As an advocate for transparency in all facets of life, simply stating that your data is being collected is not enough; the developers of these apps and games should let you know exactly where your data ends up, who’s buying it, and for what purpose. On the other hand, it’s a little understandable that free apps require advertisers in order to stay in business. But it’s also important not to confuse this data collection with up-front advertising on certain free apps that allow you to pay a small fee to remove ad banners. This fee only pays for your right not to be advertised at directly, It does NOT mean they stop collecting your data! It only means that you’ll be advertised to later through a different medium.

So how far does this go? How much data is being collected? A driving apple called Google Waze collections your locational data, but it also shares this data with local governments! Doesn’t that strike you as “Big Brother” behavior? It’s not a matter of whether you have something to hide, but rather a reasonable expectation of privacy within your own property – including your car and where you’re going every day! It can go further than that. Last month Twitter unveiled Fabric, a platform for building mobile apps. Included in the tools is something called Digits, which is used to send SMS Registrations to people signing up for mobile app services. Normally this would an expensive undertaking for the owner of the app, but with Digits, Twitter would be paying for the text delivery. However, Twitter also gets to keep the phone numbers for advertising purposes. This behavior isn’t explicitly explained to anyone downloading or registering for the app!

So the question remains: Are your apps compromising your privacy? YES, absolutely they are! The more important question is this: do you care enough to make changes to your mobile behavior?

Privacy Policy – Read at Least One of These

A site’s privacy policy is one of the most important documents you should read, especially when you need to sign up for an account. Every website should have one, and it should detail exactly what kind of data it’s collecting from you, how they’re going to use that information, and who is entitled to that information if and when they get sold, bought, or merged. The privacy policy is a sister-document to the User Agreement or Terms and Conditions, which usually states that by using the site, you are also agreeing to some level of data collection by way of tracking cookies and IP Address logs.

True, these two documents aren’t the most thrilling pieces of writing in the world, but it’s very important that you familiarize yourself with the type of language they use. Also you’re agreeing to something! Why would you ever agree to something if you don’t understands the terms and conditions? We’re all in the habit of clicking “Yes, I agree to the Terms and Conditions” box just to get to the next screen. Most of the time no harm will come of it, but do understand that the legalese most often protects the site owner first and the users second.

Most importantly though, the privacy policies of a website will state that the information they collect about you will be shared with their partners, including advertisers, in order to better target you as a potential buyer of a product or service. A great number of sites are connected to Google, which means that your searches and its contents are being monitored, collected, and shared with any company partnered with Google so that ads relevant to your interests are more likely to pop up in banners, side panels, and “promoted” sections of other sites you visit.

Don’t willfully put yourself in the dark about this type of practice. Read over a privacy policy and user agreement at least once just to see how your personal information is being used. If you don’t care, carry on. If you do, then learn ways to protect yourself by doing research, or by reading more posts from my blog. No pressure! Just letting you know it’s there!

An Ad-Free Social Network? What’s Your Deal, Ello?

ello2Have you heard of Ello? I recently found out about this brand new social network that’s currently in a beta phase. If you’ve been following my blog for any amount of time, you will know that I am a staunch advocate for online privacy, especially against advertisers and sites that will sell your personal information to the highest bidder for the purpose of flashing banner ads in your face. Some of the largest offenders of this philosophy: social networks. Ello, however, seems to be a proponent of the user’s right to privacy, claiming in their manifesto that they do not and will not ever have advertising on their site. For this reason, they and the people who back this social network have dubbed it the “Anti-Facebook”. At first I was suspicious. If they become as popular as Facebook, how will they pay for all their server costs? Every company needs to generate some sort of revenue in order to keep their operations running, right? Their About page explains it all.

It appears Ello will be running on a Freemium platform, which many people have seen in the gaming industry. For those unfamiliar with the term, freemium platforms offer a base service free of charge, but with special features in the form of microtransactions. In other words, you have the initial account for free, but if you want small special features, you need to pay a small sum of money to have it. I am a gamer myself, so the freemium motto is no news to me, nor is it a practice that I support; most freemium games include tons of advertising to generate their revenue. In Ello’s case, it appears it may be a necessary practice for the purpose of generating revenue, since they won’t include any advertising.

My verdict: I will request an invitation. Hopefully I will be able to join and see what features they offer and compare them to Facebook’s functions. I will also be keeping an eye on what the base service offers and what paid special services will be available in the future. Hopefully they will be very separate functions that don’t look like they should be a part of the base service. You know, stuff like paying $3 to streamline your menus so that anyone who paid for this special service will have a much more convenient time navigating the site, whereas the base service members have a nearly unusable platform. Keep this in mind, Ello: don’t make the paid services a necessary feature for your users to have a satisfactory experience. The network itself should stand on its own!

Update: Collusion is Now Called Lightbeam

In one of my earliest posts, I mentioned a Firefox add-on called “Collusion”, which displayed third-party tracking cookies in a circle graph, allowing you to see from what sites these cookies are coming. After its experimental phase ended and the add-on launched for real, it changed its name to Lightbeam. This add-on is an important step in understanding how your activity is being tracked simply by going about your everyday business online. Many people might see an alarming number of circles and triangles fanning out from their favorite websites, while others who are more conscious about their online privacy will see very few. The less white you see on your Lightbeam add-on, the better:

Lightbeam

It’s never too late to take privacy into your own hands. Do you want to be advertised to every time you open up your browser? Are you sure you want strangers and corporations finding out your likes and dislikes for the sole purpose of being better equipped to sell you something? Keep in mind that Lightbeam only shows you who is tracking you; it doesn’t do anything to prevent it from happening. To maximize your security at even the most basic level, install Adblock Plus and Ghostery. It takes a while to set up so you don’t block your favorite social buttons, or to show support for your favorite Youtube channels that make money from ad revenue, but it’s well worth your time. Time is not an excuse, because it only takes minutes. Difficulty is not an excuse, because setup is very easy. What are you waiting for?

Did You Even Read It?

Post

Who’s to blame for the latest trend of posting links with sensationalist headlines? It’s hard to tell, but we all know one thing: it’s working. Well, working in that people share the content, but failing in that most people don’t even access the content for more than just the headline or the first paragraph. In fact, I’m amazed at its effectiveness. Viral content from over 10 years ago have come back with shiny new headlines and rekindled a long dead netpidemic (let’s see if I can make this term trend!). This is the latest craze, the best material we can find, and the perfect method of gathering data on the unsuspecting public through social media channels. They know where you’re coming from, and often these articles of extreme exaggeration have social logins that not only broadcasts what social sites you use, but also with whom you’re sharing the content. Other bits of data include how long you’ve stayed on the page, whether or not you’ve scrolled all the way down (that’s why some pages load partway until you scroll), and even where your mouse lingers and for how long (Clicktale). And that’s just the tip o the iceberg! If you really want to know how many ways a site is tracking your actions, install the Ghostery app. I mean just look at this. ghosteryThere are TWENTY different tracking tools and social buttons! Most sites have a hard time coming up with 4!

So what’s wrong with it? Some will say it’s harmless fun, but in my opinion, it perpetuates the spread of inaccurate data, compromises you and your friends’ right to privacy, and clutters up our social media feeds. So what can we do as users? What can the owners of these sites do as content producers? For the latter, try producing quality content without resorting to sensationalist headlines! It’s hard work, yes, but you shouldn’t have to lure people into sharing your content without actually reading your content! Why bother with any articles at all? You’d do just as well to simply have the headline and a pretty image to with it. As users we can stop sharing Clickbait content. Or at the very least we can read the articles and THEN decide whether or not it’s worth sharing! Content producers create these sensationalist headlines because people are sharing them, and people are sharing them because they’re too lazy to read. If no one takes the first step, then we’re never going to get anywhere, the content’s going to get worse, and your private information becomes that much more of a commodity. You have been warned. Now stop it!

On Passwords, Backups, and Encryption

The Passwords

It’s always worth mentioning again the importance of having a strong password in favor of one that’s easy to remember. Your personal information should never be something you risk for the sake of convenience, especially when your credit history and personal savings can be put at risk. Just keep in mind that a strong password does not necessary mean a complicated string of unrelated letters, numbers, and symbols. Unless you’re protecting sensitive government information, your password can have special significance to you, and yes, you should include different cases, numbers, and symbols. These types of passwords are almost ubiquitous in most sites that require you to create an account. No, they’re not there to discourage you from joining or make the process unbearable. These precautions are put in place with the very specific purpose of protecting your personal information. The problem is people tend to input the very minimum to meet the requirements, nullifying the original intent of privacy and Internet safety! Just take a look at the 25 most common passwords of 2013 from CBS and you’ll see what I mean. Keep in mind that even simple passwords can be made more difficult to decipher. The word “password”, for example, can be written as “P@5sW0rD”. Here we capitalize the letter “P”, use the “@” symbol to represent “A”, use TWO separate characters for “S”, and a zero for the letter “O”. Combine this with the rule “Every other regular letter has to be capitalized”, and a once simple (and most common) password is now one that is far more difficult to crack. For the sake of clarification, never use the word “password” in any way, shape, or form. Pick something with personal significance and add a string of numbers that you’d always remember, like the month and day of your children’s birthdays.

Note: Be wary of any Internet service that will send you your password if you click the “I forgot my password” button. If they do, it means your actual password is on file somewhere, which means that it can be stolen. Any website worth its salt will have a “Reset your password” function, which means that the passwords you choose are heavily encrypted, and not even the owner of the website knows what it is. Here’s a video explaining how that works:

The Backup System

The Cloud is the latest technology for securing important data, and many tech companies have jumped on board. They claim that by putting your storage space online and separate from your device, that device can be made smaller or have room for other emerging technologies, causes less environmental damage, and runs faster. But how safe is your data? Many people were quick to claim a failure in Apple’s iCloud services for the recent theft and distribution of many celebrities’ private photographs. According to Apple, the iCloud system was not breached; the data was stolen by targeting the username, password recovery, and security questions. Keep in mind that this isn’t anything new! This has always been the very first step in stealing passwords and identities online! It is by far the simplest and most effective method. So what does it come down to? STRONGER PASSWORDS! This cannot be stressed enough! If you’re constantly paranoid about your photographs and personal data, you can always opt for the original method of storing your data: external hard drives. You can keep a backup of your computer on it, and while it may require you to periodically update it manually, the only way that data can be stolen is if you are careless online (say with poor passwords) and somehow allowed a virus into your main computer, or if someone broke into your home and stole your computer and/or hard drive. In which case you can protect yourself with encryption programs.

The Encryption Method

Encrypting your computer might seem like you’re going a little too far, but for those who are absolutely serious about keeping their data safe from prying eyes, it’s an absolute necessity. With free-to-use programs like TrueCrypt (no longer maintained), you can encrypt your entire computer or partition the drive so that sensitive information cannot be accessed without the proper password or key. Even if someone did get their hands on your machine or hacked into it externally, the data you’ve encrypted would be useless and all but impossible to decipher. Whether or not your data is important enough for this safety measure is entirely up to you.