When was the last time you read the terms of the services agreement for a particular software or a website? You might not even remember, because who does? Why go through all the trouble when you can just press I agree and move on. And that was when the internet wasn’t such an important part of our lives. Nowadays, it’s very easy for different entities to collect your private data, and they can use it for various reasons.
It may sound scary, but if you understand what your private data is, who is after it, and how can you protect it, you can control the situation, at least a bit. Your social security number, credit card information, health records, or your driver’s license is the kind of data you can’t allow falling into the hands of deviant entities. And most businesses don’t even try to collect this data about you since it can be so easily abused. But they can collect other data, like your favorite products, locations, email addresses, etc. This is data that they can monetize in various ways. Most of the data that’s collected on you online is used for consumer profiling by various businesses.
What Data is Collected and How You Can Prevent It
One of the scariest things, and unfortunately, the most ignored aspect of online data collection is that most of the people don’t even realize what kind of data they are offering to the prying eyes when they are simply browsing the internet. People offer all kinds of data when they are engaging in typical social media activities like posting personal photos, shopping online, or even searching for their favorite music video. And even if the bulk of data collection is not evil or ill-intended per se, it’s still a privacy nightmare.
1. Location Data
Once upon a time, the location data used to be relatively crude and very general. Your IP address, which is shared with a number of entities, especially the websites you visit. With it, they know your city, country, and a general sense of your location (because at most they get the address of the ISP). These websites collect your data, which is helpful for them because it gives them an idea about where most of their online traffic is coming from.
It’s a problem for you because these websites can use your location data to show you local ads, monetizing their traffic. But nowadays, thanks to a smartphone in almost everyone’s hands, the location data is much more accurate and potent for marketers. From restaurants in your vicinity that may want to snag you as a regular, to other business that may benefit from your location, this part of your private data can be useful for a lot of people/businesses.
The remedy thankfully is simple. You can pick some good habits like keeping your location off on your phone and only giving certain apps permissions to access location. You can clear your history as well. The safest method might be to use a VPN. Whether it’s for your android phone or your computer, it can mask your IP and grant you the safety of anonymity.
2. Your Identity-Related Data
Most people have a profile on social media platforms. For example, if you have a Facebook profile, it shows your name, education, city, gender, age, relationship, interests, etc. That’s a lot of information that’s freely available about you on the internet. Why? Because most people keep their profile visible to the public, so it’s accessible on search engines, and anyone can just look them up. Businesses that are using Facebook profiles to narrow down their clientele can use your freely available information.
And that’s just Facebook. Other platforms like Twitter or Instagram also offer information about you. Even knowing that you have a family and two kids can be beneficial for marketers and businesses, so they can send you relevant ads.
Most social media platforms have privacy settings. You should look into these and set your privacy in a way that your information is only accessible to your friends and family, i.e., the people you trust. It’s a bit tricky on platforms like LinkedIn where you want to be found by the right people (professionals and companies that might want to hire you). However, you still want your private information like your job experience and education hidden.
3. Behavioral and Attitudinal Data
Even things that you consider trivial, like the fact that you always check multiple online stores before buying a product or searching for the cheapest available product in a category, can be helpful for marketers and online retail forums. That constitutes part of your behavioral data. Your attitudinal data may include your tendency to offer feedback on the products that you have bought. It may include whether you always leave positive comments, just rate a product, or write detailed reviews.
This is kind of hard to protect against because if you actively try to hide your identity while writing a review, it might not be considered legit. But do try to be as discrete as possible, and never offer too much unnecessary information about yourself.
Personal data collection has advanced quite a bit in the last few years. With the advent of voice searches, smart devices, and AI, the future of data collection is likely to become even more sophisticated and hard to guard against. One consolation that you may take is that as privacy breaches are evolving, so are tools like VPNs that can protect your privacy. But it’s still imperative that you get educated in this regard, and pick up some good privacy habits.