Predictive Algorithms: How and Why You’re Being Tracked Digitally

How Predictive Algorithms Seem to Know You So Well

Have you ever found it strange that your phone, tablet or computer seems to be listening to you and maybe even knows you better than you even know yourself?

The correlation between data and predictive algorithms is becoming an increasingly hot topic. So, let’s take a closer look at what is actually happening and find out whether your phone, Siri, Alexa or Google listening is something you need to address.

Your Buying Habits are Predicted

Algorithms are designed to track people’s online behavior, but the extent of this might just surprise you. Predictive algorithms are used by many retail websites and large e-commerce platforms. They can scan your browsing history, see what you’ve clicked on and what you have purchased. But that isn’t all.

These algorithms also keep an eye on which advertisements you spend some time looking at, the emails you read and the social media posts you react or comment on.

Put this data together and you will see an in-depth look at your online behavior, so predictions can be made about what you might like to purchase in the future. Perhaps you’ve seen personalized ads or recommendations for products you’ve been thinking about buying.

Not only does this help businesses by boosting sales, but it also has an impact on your perceived choices. When shopping online, you might think you’re making your own decisions but in truth the algorithms have analyzed your online behavior and predicted your preferences.

We have the illusion of choice and every time we browse a web store or buy something online, this is what’s happening behind the scenes.

Predictive Algorithms Know Our Daily Routine

It’s no coincidence your phone seems to know your day-to-day routine better than you. And again this is all down to predictive algorithms. Google, Apple and other huge tech giants use data analysis and location tracking to determine your daily routines.

They know what time you leave for work, which route you drive, what places you visit often, and how long you stay there. Algorithms process the data and then your device suggests quicker routes to destinations you visit often or remind you of daily tasks.

Perhaps you’ve notice when you open Google Maps and it suggests the fastest route home, or when your phone reminds you to go to the gym.

As well as predictive algorithms learning our routines, they can also adapt to any changes in your regular routines. If you start working out in the evening instead of before work, or you start to visit a new café often, the algorithm will update the predictions.

At first, this amount of personalization sounds useful. After all, your phone knowing there is a car accident on one of your possible routes to work and sending you on a detour can save you gas money as well as precious time.

But what about privacy? We never agreed to be tracked in this way, or did we?

being tracked when online

They Guess Your Entertainment Preferences

Spotify and Netflix suggest music and movies which you listen to or watch and love. Entertainment platforms have complex algorithms in place to analyze your listening and viewing history and determine your preferences.

Factors such as ratings you give, genres you like, artists you listen to a lot, and the time of day or night are all taken into account. This ensures the algorithms can come up with new content in line with your perceived preferences, and the “recommended for you” page is based on predictive modeling.

This saves you time hunting for new content you’ll enjoy, because it tends to be quite accurate, but there is also an “echo chamber” effect, as we are given similar kinds of content to what we are watching. Being fed these similar kinds of content narrows our exposure to new and different content.

We might think we’re choosing our entertainment ourselves, but that’s only within the confines of our preferences, according to predictive algorithms.

Predictive Algorithms Can Track Our Emotions

Yes, it’s possible for algorithms to predict our mood. Instagram and Facebook use sentiment analysis algorithms to watch the content and tone of anything you post, share, like, and comment on.

Patterns in your online activity can be paired with various emotional states. If you’re liking positive posts or posting happy updates, the algorithm determines you’re in a good mood, and of course the opposite is also true.

Tracking your moods means your online experience can be tailored, so you might see targeted ads for comforting products if you seem sad or a lot of uplifting content if you seem stressed or upset.

Again, this can enhance your experience online by offering relevant content, but it also means leaves our emotions open to being manipulated. We might be under the illusion our online experience is varied and random, while algorithms are shaping what we see and hear as they interpret our state of mind.

They Can Determine Your Political Views

News websites and social media platforms use algorithms in this digital age to predict our political leanings and influence them. Again, they look at the comments you make, articles you read and posts you react to.

The algorithms give you more relevant new feed items to reflect your political inclinations, and if you end up with almost all relevant posts it’s no coincidence. As well as determining your political leanings, algorithms monitor changes in your online behavior to predict shifts in your political views.

This might seem helpful because we spend less time looking for content that interests us but it’s a kind of ideological echo chambers. Rather than making our own decisions about politics, we are being gently nudged by predictive algorithms. This is a somber remind of how powerful these algorithms can be.

The Also Analyze Your Health Trends

There are more health apps and fitness trackers coming out all the time, and they have access to all kinds of data regarding our physical health. Everything from sleep patterns and heart rate to calorie intake and workout routines are tracked by these digital tools.

With this information, an algorithm can suggest lifestyle changes, predict possible health risks or alert us if there is an abnormal pattern which might be indicative of a medical problem.

Let’s look at an example. If your fitness tracker sees a resting heart rate increase over a few days, it might suggest you aren’t sleeping enough or you’re under stress. If you’re logging more calories than you’re burning, the health app might suggest more exercise or healthier eating patterns.

Such insights can be useful tools to maintain a healthy lifestyle but they can also take away our control over our own bodies. Although we believe we’re making independent decisions about our health, those choices are often influenced by predictive analysis based algorithmic suggestions.

predictive algorithms

Your Social Interactions are Predicted

Social media uses complex algorithms to analyze our social interactions and make predictions based on those. The algorithms see what kind of content we share and the posts we like and comment on, who we interact with the most, and what time of day you’re most active on there.

This sophisticated analysis is how Facebook comes up with the “people you may know” feature and predicts who you’ll probably interact with in the future. Our online social experiences are shaped by algorithms by prioritizing some types of content and moving others lower down in our feed.

They Also Predict Your Career

Algorithms can be used to predict potential career moves. LinkedIn, for example, is a professional networking platform that uses algorithms to look at your skills, job history, the type of job postings you spend time reading, and any endorsements you have. This allows them to predict what type of job would suit you.

Perhaps you’ve notice how accurate personalized job recommendations are, or how you’re prompted to connect with various professionals in specific industries.

Again, this can be useful but it also creates the illusion of choice, and algorithmic predictions have a hand in your career.

The Impact of Predictive Algorithms: In Conclusion

Algorithms are part of our daily lives, making decisions more personalized and easier, but it’s important to understand a lot of our choices are heavily influenced by these algorithms. The code used in this sophisticated technology is shaping our lives in this digital age.

Our personal choices and decisions are without a doubt intertwined with lines of code. Machine learning is an artificial intelligence subset which allows algorithms to learn from our data and make predictions with it. It’s similar to the way we as humans learn but happens in our digital devices.

Such algorithms are a factor in our online experiences and have the power to influence our decisions, shape our perceptions and predict our future activities and actions. Whether it’s purchasing a product recommended by Amazon, interacting with a suggested person on LinkedIn or picking out out a movie on Netflix, the underlying code is playing its part.

Technology continues to develop and it’s important for us, as consumers, to know and understand exactly how much access they have to us via our devices. Although this can make our life easier, saving you time and money, there is also a concern about being able to maintain control over our choices without being nudged by lines of code in this algorithm-driven age.

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