Online tracking: Data harvesters came for your privacy – and found it

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ONE Friday in 2021, I walked into a hotel in Exeter, UK, at 17:57:35. The next morning, I drove 9 minutes to the nearby hospital. I stayed for three days. The drive home, normally 1 hour 15 minutes, took 1 hour 40 minutes. The reason for the slow speed, my brand-new baby, dozed in the back.

These aren’t details from a journal. Instead, they are what Google knows about my daughter’s birth, based on my location history alone.

A data snapshot of that weekend reveals this isn’t all that companies know about me. Netflix remembers that I watched a variety of feel-good fluff including Gilmore Girls and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Instagram recorded that I “liked” a post about labour induction, then didn’t log in again for a week.

So what? We all know by now that we are being tracked online, and that the data collected on us is both granular and constant. Perhaps you like that Netflix and Instagram know your film and fashion tastes so well.

But a growing number of investigations and lawsuits reveal a new online tracking landscape in which the reach of companies that harvest data is more insidious than many of us realise. When I looked more closely, I found that my personal data could be affecting everything from my job prospects and loan applications to my access to healthcare. It may, in other words, be shaping my everyday life in ways that I was unaware of. “The problem’s huge, and there are always new horrors,” says Reuben Binns at the University of Oxford.

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