Every time facebook or Google or Apple updates their terms and conditions, the collective internet blows up with articles about how our privacy is slowly being lost and warning us to turn on privacy settings or cancel our memberships altogether. Without getting into the technical details, I will attempt to show you why you have no need to worry: this has been going on since the inception of the internet (and even before with your credit/debit card, employment forms, surveys, catalog subscriptions, invoices, ticket purchases and so on).
Basically, every time you do anything via internet (read email on your desktop, get a push-notification from Twitter on your smart phone or stream a video on your tablet), nearly all your personal information is being sent around to different companies. That is because you or your household signed a contract with an internet service provider (ISP) who assigns you an internet protocol address (IP address) so they can monitor your traffic and connect you to the internet backbone. Whenever you send a request for a web page or an image or an email, this IP address, which is directly linked to your name/address/credit card/phone number, is sent all the way through your ISP to various companies who facilitate the core functionality of the internet, to the final destination, and back. Not only that, but the exact device you are using has a worldwide unique address that is also known by at least your ISP.
This means at the very least your ISP (or mobile service provider, if you are surfing on your mobile device; and the ISP of whoever’s WiFi you are using) knows who you are and where you are at all times. And they send parts of this information as part of every request for information on the internet. Usually only the IP address is sent, but that’s enough to locate you to within a town or even city block, due to the way IP address are assigned throughout the world (think: postal codes). And you simply cannot stop anyone whose website you open or mobile application you use from looking up your general location. They need your IP address in order to give you the content you want!
Now of course today we have many devices with GPS buit-in and even accelerators to measure our current speed (useful for navigation systems and games where you have to physically move the device around). Each company that develops websites or applications that want to use this very specific data, as well as other personal data like name, address, e-mail, credit card, password, has to explicitly ask you for your permissions. For example: for instagram to be able to post your activity to twitter, it needs your permission to do so. It’s pretty simple. If you don’t want it to do that, you can either turn off that feature or not use instagram.
So… if you’re worried that some company out there has too much information on you, try to turn off those features in the privacy settings. If they do not offer to turn off those features (meaning they need your GPS or e-mail in order to perform their most basic functions), then you can simply delete your account.
However: this does not mean that if you’re ever in trouble somewhere that your government cannot look through ALL your recent internet history and location data to see where the last time you accessed your device was. This also means that if you are on trial for a murder, your government can look through that same information to prove (or disprove) that you were at the scene of the crime. The only TRUE way to not let anybody see what you’re doing online, ever, is to not go online.
Does that make sense or did I go to fast?