The holiday season is upon us and by the end of the year, Americans will have spent approximately $600 billion shopping in stores and online. By now, most consumers are aware of a broad range of risks associated with the holidays. We try not to leave packages in our cars in the mall parking lot, and we are careful with our credit card information. We have learned, sadly, how to spot charity scams. And even though it is sometimes tempting, we generally adhere to the warning that “if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

In all this — assuming we are not too exhausted from baking cookies, decorating the house and attending countless holiday parties — we may notice that we’re receiving coupons after looking at a company’s website. Or a catalog arrives in the mail after visiting a store, which seems odd because we barely walked through the door and never gave anyone an address. And our favorite social media site keeps showing that purse, watch or power tool we’ve been thinking about buying.

Then, we realize that the holidays are truly a season of giving — the giving of vast amounts of information about ourselves, which when compiled, aggregated and analyzed become what is so ubiquitously referred to as “big data.” You may embrace big data and its capabilities, thinking most things in your life are public anyway and you’ll at least get a better shopping experience out of it. Your smartphone can certainly help you with that. But if you are seeking a sense of obscurity and feel gleeful whenever a social media advertisement targets the opposite of who you are, you may prefer the less “chatty” privacy settings. Either way, just keep in mind that:

  • Your phone has the capability to track every step you take. Add to that frequent use of public wifi, and retailers will be able to predict fairly accurately how soon you may be back to the store.
  • Your social media profile is a prime source for targeted advertising. Something as simple as a change in relationship status will quickly reverse the ratio of dating sites and romantic getaways ads.
  • When you use your phone to compare prices, you will receive a lot of advertisement for similar products.
  • You can change the browser settings and surf in private. This is good advice for any shared device, but particularly around the holidays when you would prefer that your spouse, when using the family laptop, will not be greeted by multiple ads for the jewelry store you just went to or even the specific necklace you thought about buying.

The extent to which you embrace big data is a matter of personal preference. Just be aware that the sales announcement you receive shortly after shopping for that same product may not be such a coincidence after all.