Cord-cutting offers a bounty of free and cheap content to stream, but it also has a hidden cost.

Behind the ads you see on streaming services like Hulu, The Roku Channel, CBS All Access, and Tubi, there are sprawling data collection operations aimed at figuring out the kind of person you are. The apps you use on your phone, the websites you visit on your computer, and even the things you search for are all fair game for streaming services to track and monetize through advertising.

Here’s the good news: As of earlier this month, the companies that share all this data among themselves must allow you to opt out under the California Consumer Privacy Act. If you recently noticed an uptick in emails about changes to various companies’ privacy policies, CCPA was almost certainly the reason.

Even if you don’t live in California, chances are you can tell these companies to stop selling or transmitting your info. All it takes is a few minutes of filling out some brief online forms.

Why this matters

On the surface, targeted ads might seem innocuous. Television advertising has always tried to appeal to whatever demographic is most likely to be watching a particular movie or show; bringing in personal data just makes those ads more relevant.

This type of data collection, however, can be far more invasive than people realize. Streaming services aren’t just gathering basic demographic data or information about your viewing habits. They also pull in information about all the things you do when you’re not watching TV.

The privacy policies for both CBS and Tubi, for instance, mention that collecting data on your interests, purchase behavior, websites visited, and advertisements viewed or clicked on, all in service of targeting you with ads. Hulu’s privacy policy says it collects information from data brokers, marketing partners, and public databases. Roku’s privacy policy says it tracks your behavior across phones, tablets, computers, and streaming players, so it can consistently target you with ads everywhere.

Jared Newman / IDG

You might not recognize these names, but they’re all involved in tracking you for ad-targeting purposes.

Unless you take an “ignorance is bliss” approach to this information, it’s hard to go about your business online without the feeling that you’re constantly being watched. That doesn’t seem like a fair trade-off for services that are only a bit more reasonably priced than cable.

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