Reader challenge: Privacy test

BY J. CARLTON COLLINS, CPA
December 1, 2013

In the aftermath of so many revelations about computer privacy this year, I thought it might be interesting to put your own privacy to the test. Earlier this year I found myself shopping for camping tents on Amazon.com, but I did not make a purchase. Shortly thereafter, I noticed that the camping tents I had studied for a longer time began showing up in banner ads in various websites, and even in ads along my Facebook wall. I wasn’t shocked to see this because I am well aware that a multitude of cookies pay close attention to my web surfing habits and target me accordingly.

This observation prompted me to conduct a more dramatic test in which I sent my wife an email message (using all of my active email accounts) stating that “I was thinking about purchasing a Rolex watch for our son on his birthday,” and I then waited to see if Rolex watches were mentioned in any website banner ads. To my amazement, I started receiving junk email messages promoting Rolex watches, an example of which is shown on the next page.


I’ve often preached that you should assume 1,000 people are reading each email message you send or receive, because all of your unencrypted email messages (along with any unencrypted attachments) are vulnerable to peering hackers. This email may offer proof that at least one person is harvesting and exploiting my emails.

So here’s the privacy test I propose: Send an email mentioning a retail item (preferably an item not normally associated with you), and then pay attention to your banner ads and junk email messages for a week to see if that item is mentioned in any of your emails or webpage banner ads. The results you see may provide clues as to your level of personal privacy. If you care to share those results with others (no matter the outcome), post them on this website that I created to capture your results: tinyurl.com/n7s99ws. (You may submit results anonymously.) I will compile the results and post them on this same website.

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