Comedian Steve Martin once came up with a novel way to fend off a mugger: "The first thing I do is throw up on my money," he said.
Why not take the same approach to the corporate "muggers" who rob us of our privacy by tracking everything from our search history, shopping patterns, entertainment choices and how we use our cell phones?
Consider: Search giant Google was recently found to have developed a code that bypasses private web-browsing settings on Apple's Safari browser, leading members of Congress to call on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. The FTC had already taken Google to task for opting users into a social network without their permission and investigated Facebook for making false promises about privacy.
Late last year it was discovered that many top smartphones, including some versions of Apple's top-selling iPhone, contain Carrier IQ software that collects some information about their phone usage.
Most people have no idea the extent of information collected. When Austrian student Max Schrems convinced Facebook last year to turn over everything it had on him, he reportedly got back more than 1,200 pages of data, including his online chats, log-in and log-out times and a history of messages and "likes." Schrems is still fighting to get even more information he believes the social media behemoth has.
But information is only as valuable as it is accurate. What if we turned the tables on data collectors by poisoning the well?
Think about it. Hundreds of thousands of people using Google several times a day to search for things in which they have no genuine interest, like used motorcycle dealers in Kenya or former bat boys of the Chicago Cubs.
How about rotating cell phones with your family or friends, so mobile ad trackers will wonder why you're at the mall at 2 p.m. on Wednesday instead of at your office? You could like statuses on Facebook you really hate, talk about movies you haven't seen and join pages you ordinarily wouldn't give a second glance. Try visiting web sites that have no relevance to your life.
Do you use one of those club cards at a supermarket that swap automatic coupons for your life history of grocery shopping? That data could be sold to your life insurance company. So switch cards with your friends (ideally, those who don't binge on doughnuts and beer). You'll still get the discounts at the register. (continued...)