There's been a lot of handwringing about the philosophical implications of privacy loss, but not much discussion about how it actually matters in your daily life. Let's fix that…
If you've ever made online travel arrangements you've probably noticed that the cost of a plane flight or a hotel room seems to change almost as fast as you can refresh your screen.
What you're experiencing is the coyly named process of Dynamic Pricing, which is justified as a way to offer you “more agile pricing and more personalized offerings”.
This agility is promoted as a benefit, and yet it only seems to go in one direction… up!
Dynamic Pricing is just a fancy name for ignoring the intrinsic value of something and instead setting the price based on how much you can afford to pay and how anxious you are to buy it.
But wait…. How do they know that?
Your digital life reveals a stunning amount of information about your income, shopping patterns, eating preferences, who you are with and for how long, and much more. Your devices leak GPS information. Your online accounts are linked to your past purchase habits, the neighborhood you live in, who you work for and a million other things most people regard as none of the business of someone trying to sell you something.
Even simple things such as your browsing history can be used to make surprisingly effective estimates of how much you can afford and would be willing to pay for something.
"Shopping from an expensive smart phone will often yield a higher price for the exact same holiday package than from a cheaper device".
This is particularly evident when shopping for air travel, and once you know what to look for, it's easy to see it for yourself.
The price difference is usually small — a few percent in most cases — but we've seen instances where the gap between the lowest and highest price offered has been more than double. Two different people could simultaneously book the exact same flight and be given radically different prices based solely on an analysis of their ability to pay.
"Fares will stop being linked to variables such as seats already sold and start fluctuating according to how many times your mum has texted you to ask if you’ve bought your ticket yet, and how guilty you feel that you haven’t".
You are vulnerable to this manipulation whenever you shop for travel services such as tours, hotels, car rentals or cruise bookings.
But it doesn't end there. Far from it...
Larger retailers are also doing this, not by manipulating the listed price but rather by deciding which supposed "sale price" they'll show you.
Have you ever wondered why there's such a wide range of prices for that new HD TV you've been browsing for? Have you truly found the best price?
Try this simple trick: clear your browser history and cache, and navigate back to the very same page on any major online retail site and see if the price doesn't get better.
Is it fair that just because you made more money than last year, you now have to pay 12% more for that plane flight or football ticket?
How about when you buy a dress or suit? And what happens when you shop for a major appliance?
Shockingly often, it's the same story. We've even seen quotes way above list price, presented because some algorithm decided a person was a high-earner, had an expensive smart phone, or simply wasn't doing much comparison shopping by browsing for such items.
Is this the world you want to live in?
It should be noted that not all dynamic pricing takes unfair advantage. For example, utility rates can vary in order to encourage people to use energy at times of the day or days of the week where demand is lower. This sort of 'load leveling' can save everyone money.
It goes wrong when the seller uses private information to jack up the price to just under your personal pain tolerance.
Privacy penetrations are having a direct and immediate impact on your budget. Unless you take active steps to protect yourself, you're going to spend hundreds or even thousands more each year than you need to.
It's been intentionally made difficult to protect yourself, but it's still possible and for the sake of your family budget you should make the time (about 10 minutes) to take as many of the steps listed below as you can.
And remember this: you don't have to do a perfect job in order to gain real benefit, denying them even just some personal data will badly degrade their ability to analyze and manipulate you, thus improving the price you are given.
The silver lining in this otherwise dark cloud is that you can manipulate the manipulators.
All you need is a little patience. Most online retailers are anxious to close a sale, and if they think it's slipping away from them they will suddenly offer up discounts.
So if there's a big-ticket item you are sure you are going to purchase, select 4 or 5 online retailers, setup accounts with them using your real email address, and put the item in your shopping cart.
Then abandon the purchase. Leave them dangling.
Within a few days some of them will send you emails offering discounts on that item. Wait a week, and take the best price.
You can't stop all privacy intrusions or marketing techniques that rely on them, but by taking these simple steps you can significantly decrease the extent to which you are manipulated:
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