Internet security guru Bruce Schneier once said that "Surveillance is the business model of the Internet" and, with consumers willingly giving up more and more information that can be used for marketing and investigations or even stalking and fraud, that statement has never been more true than it is today.
Consider the simplest action on any large social media site for example: liking something.
Each like creates a data point in a series of data points that, when combined, create a social profile. That profile - which you've inadvertently created - can be used to develop targeted marketing strategies that, based on the things you've already liked or bought or talked about, will deliver ads directly to you.
Closing one of those ads does no good: that, too, becomes a data point: something you don't like. Every click gives information and once combined with information about where you go, what you do, and who you hang out with, along with demographics like your level of education, age, sex, religion, nationality and political information, creates a data bundle that advertising executives will gladly pay top dollar for and that state intelligence agencies could only dream of developing with traditional surveillance methods.
The kicker - in case you missed it - is that you did all the work.
A social experiment conducted by U.K. fraud prevention specialists Cifas shows exactly how much data can be gleaned via the most innocuous social media interactions.
Watch how these café customers react when they realize that their private data isn't so private after all.
Here are three quick tips to help protect yourself.
Firstly, you can make sure that your privacy settings on sites like Facebook are set to the highest levels of security.
Secondly, check your own digital footprint. Google yourself and see what comes up. Chances are at least one data-mining company that you've probably never even heard of is selling your name and address to anyone with a credit card number. You can find a list of those companies here, along with information on how to have your data removed.
Thirdly, read the fine print and user agreements when you sign up for things and download apps: you could be giving up everything from your address to access to your phone's location settings and address book. You might want to create throwaway social media and email accounts for promos and freebies.
Finally, ask yourself why certain pieces of data are being requested and who ultimately benefits the disclosure of your personal information. Now take that to the extreme: think about how the information you make public can benefit those who would steal your identity. If you made a security question on your bank's password reset about your high school mascot, how easy would it be to locate that information about you? Then act accordingly.
Tell us your privacy tips in the comments below and how you stay safe online.