October 26, 2021

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All the Ways Spotify Tracks You—and How to Stop It

Facebook and Google are the web’s biggest advertising powerhouses. But Spotify has ambitions to rival them. And it has all the data it needs to do just that.

Each day hundreds of millions of people use Spotify on their phones, tablets, and desktops—most often remaining logged in as they move from one device to the next. With each track played, playlist created, and podcast listened to, we all feed more information into Spotify’s big data machine. More than 100 billion data points are created every day.

Each one gives Spotify a little more information about our lives. “Spotify has a crazy amount of data about us,” says Bryan Barletta, author of Sounds Profitable, a newsletter about audio and podcast advertising. “We’ve always known that what you listen to, how you listen to it, and the activities you do around listening to it are some of the most intimate things that we do. ​​They are doing some really clever things in audio.”

Spotify knows the value of this data and uses it to help drive the advertising it sells. “These real-time, personal insights go beyond demographics and device IDs alone to reveal our audience’s moods, mindsets, tastes, and behaviors,” Spotify’s advertising materials say. Of Spotify’s 365 million monthly users, 165 million of them subscribe to not listen to ads. The other 200 million put up with them. So how much does Spotify really know, and how can you limit its data collection?

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What Spotify Knows About You

Everything you do in Spotify’s web player and desktop and mobile apps is tracked. Every tap, song start, playlist listen, search, shuffle, and pause is logged. Spotify knows that you started playing Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” at 23:03, listened to it for one minute, then searched for “break up” and listened to the entire four hours and 52 minutes of the “ANGRY BREAKUP PLAYLIST” without any pauses.

All this behavioral data can be mined by Spotify—and it can be deeply revealing. Back in 2015, when Spotify had just 15 million paying subscribers, one executive said it collects an “enormous amount of data on what people are listening to, where, and in what context. It really gives us insight into what these people are doing.”

The music you listen to mirrors how you feel, who you’re with, and what you’re doing. To make the most of this, Spotify has invested heavily in data science and has even used people’s listening habits in its advertising. “Dear person in the Theater District who listened to the Hamilton Soundtrack 5,376 times this year, can you get us tickets?” read one ad from 2017.

This granularity can be lucrative for companies wanting to target people with attention-grabbing ads. Based on your behavior, Spotify comes up with “inferences” that are meant to reflect your interests and preferences. “What’s interesting is that the data from the paid users, who are not listening to podcasts, they might never hear an ad in Spotify, but they power that logic engine,” Barletta says. “They’re a control group.”

But that’s not the only data Spotify gets. If you really want to know what Spotify knows about you, then you need to read its privacy policy, which runs to 4,500 words. “I think they can use much clearer language,” says Pat Walshe, a data protection and privacy consultant who has researched Spotify’s use of data. “They can be more concise, they can lay it out better.”

Broadly, the rest of the data Spotify has about you is information you give it when you’re creating an account. You can tell it your username, email, phone number, date of birth, gender, street address, and country. If you pay, you’ll also give it your billing information. The company’s privacy policy also says it can get cookie data, IP addresses, the type of device you’re using, your browser type, your operating system, and information about some devices on your Wi-Fi network.