How Much Privacy Have I Lost by Buying Online?

BlogHer Original Post

One of the scarier facts about online life is that privacy requires constant vigilance. There are ways to look at your purchases, your remarks, your friends list, and your other public data and learn a truly astonishing array of things about you.

Privacy on Facebook has been in the news recently. Perhaps I should say privacy on Facebook is always an issue. Sara (the second commenter) made some interesting comments to this article by Chris Pirillo about Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg's recent comments on privacy. Apophenia (aka danah boyd) talks about privacy in Facebook's move ain't about changes in privacy norms.

The TSA is talking about doing full body scans at airports, which may create images that can be saved and transmitted. Melanie Wyne watches what the FTC is doing about privacy to help real estate professionals run their businesses.

I decided to reveal some personal information and let you see what you can figure out about me with the knowledge.

I was listening to a new album while driving in my car and wondered just what sort of analysis a person could make about me by looking at the last 5 CDs I'd purchased. A mini case study, if you will. I buy CDs almost every month, so it's a rich mine field of data about me. What am I telling an online marketing analyst by buying these items?

Feel free to provide analysis of me in the comments based on these 5 purchases. Lacking anyone else to do it for me, I'll tell you what I think they mean. See if your analysis agrees with mine.

Here are the last 5 albums I've bought:

  • The Truth According to Ruthie Foster by Ruthie Foster. Here's a video of her doing a solo of "Stone Love" from this album at a CD release party at Waterloo Records in Austin. I bought this CD in a local independent bookstore, so there might not be any digital trail about this purchase.
  • The Fall by Norah Jones. Here's a music video of "Chasing Pirates" from this CD. I bought it at iTunes, so it's in a database.
  • Blues Around the World, a Putamayo compilation. Here's a recording of one of the songs from this album, this one is "Slide Blues" by Botafogo. This is another CD that may not have any digital tracks, since I bought it in a local store called Peace Craft that sells goods from around the world.
  • The Orchard by Lizz Wright. Here's a music video of My Heart from this album. I bought this one at iTunes.
  • The List by Rosanne Cash. This is a rather clumsy preview video of the entire album. This one came from iTunes.

Have you decided what you think my purchases reveal about me? Here's what the iTunes Store recommends for me today. Are they on target?

iTunes store recommendations

I'm not enough of a marketing person to know what my buying choices mean for sure, other than that I buy a lot of music. However, I promised an interpretation, so here's my self-analysis. I think my choices show a strong preference for women's voices. I think they show a preference for jazz, blues and country. I think they show an interest in music that is international, or not necessarily in English. I think they show a lack of interest in hiphop and top 40 music and an inclination toward lesser known regional or world favorites. I would conclude that these are the purchases of an older person—I don't think many twenty-somethings are buying this music except perhaps the Norah Jones.

Most of those things are true, with one exception. Rosanne Cash and country music. I don't normally buy country music. I was attracted to The List because it carries a story about family and American roots that seems significant to me. Rosanne Cash is a good singer and I like women's voices, so I can take a little dose of country for the sake of the history involved with the album. Here's the story of The List, as told on NPR's Fresh Air. Someone looking at this purchase would not know that was why I was interested, however. iTunes certainly considers me a target for country music purchases—you saw the recommended album by Steve Earle.

Just knowing that I listen to public radio tells a lot about me. If someone tracked me for a long time, they might figure out that I buy artists based on hearing interviews with them on Fresh Air with some frequency. That would be some pretty fancy database infosharing, wouldn't it? However, the Apple Store knows that I subscribe to the Fresh Air podcasts, and it also knows mostly what I buy. Could they connect the dots?

What else does this little bit of data tell you about me? Do you see something I don't? Do the two African American choices mean something? Does Norah Jones' exotic background combined with the Putamayo choice mean something? If you didn't know about the two CDs I bought locally, but only knew about the three I bought on iTunes would your conclusions be completely different?

How much of my privacy have I given up with this story?

A Resource:
BlogHer's Online Safety Group, by Intelius contains many tips for safeguarding your online life.

Virginia DeBolt
BlogHer Contributing Editor|Web Teacher|First 50 Words

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