How many online accounts to you have right now? From web games, to social media, to professional subscriptions, we all have an untold amount of data stored on the Internet. The sum of your accounts likely includes everything from your email address to the cookies you use online. That’s why data protection is so important, against anyone you don’t want to have it.
However, cybercriminals are not the only ones with an interest in your online data. Third parties often buy seemingly “impersonal” data, which doesn’t violate PII disclosure laws or confidentiality. You know what we’re talking about: Facebook advertises products that you’ve Googled recently. Instagram seemingly picks up on topics you only had a conversation about. Even geo-location plays a role in data collection and sales.
Today, you’ll learn why it’s so important to know who has access to your data, if they’re selling it, and what to do about that.
Why Do Companies Sell Data?
Most of the time, third-party data sales come down to pure profit. When companies collect information like your age demographic, general location and interests, certain third parties see all that data they’re sitting on as a veritable goldmine. By purchasing certain information – theoretically innocuous enough not to compromise your online safety – these third parties can market whatever products they think will entice you into a sale. They’re not selling your passwords on the Dark Web; they’re just offering up that you live in New York City and have shown an interest in camping recently.
Think about Facebook, a relatively common example people give of generating sidebar ads that somehow relate to previous Google searches they’ve made. If they decide to purchase one of the products shown to them on Facebook, the marketing company that created the link will typically get a commission of whatever purchases you make. Similar to a “product code,” the landing site tracks where you came from to appropriately dole out third-party commissions. They have already purchased ad space from the marketer, thus everyone from the website to the seller turns a profit.
Except the consumer. This can all seem like a complicated web that all boils down to selling information about you to make someone else revenue. Some people don’t like their various accounts and devices tracking searches just to sell them products later – products that they may have searched in passing, purely out of curiosity instead of intent to buy. It happens all the time: You look up the name of a movie that your friend can’t remember, and suddenly your auto-correct thinks you’re really interested in cinemas nearby.
Data Collection and AI
Not all data collection is done with the purpose of finding out information about you, however. These systems are also used to improve artificial intelligence databases. More commonly known as AI, these algorithms use your input to expand and streamline their data sets with accurate information. If more people in your area search for “sushi near me” than anything else, what do you think the search engine will auto-complete when you start typing s?
Of course, that’s a simplified view of AI because these systems are getting an unfathomable amount of data every day. However, it helps explain how third party data collection services are tied in with improving artificial intelligence for systems all over the world. By amassing all the data of, say, Internet users in New York, the AI can self-teach more appropriate suggestions to help out future web surfers there. Plus, think about how useful this is for gathering anthropological data and discovering market trends!
To Sell or Not to Sell?
Consumers benefit from third party data sales, too. It’s quick, easy and convenient to have relevant purchases suggested to you, to spare the trouble of hunting down every part needed for your home project. If you’re buying a baby crib, isn’t it useful to get reminders for carriages, diaper genies and pacifiers too?
Except your web presence probably isn’t that succinct. We don’t solely use search engines for a concentrated purchase. Often, people look up facts that are brought up in casual conversation, or want to shop around for a customized order or better price at the cost of quality. Customization is useful, but people do enjoy having options.
However, the primary issue that’s often quoted by those who wish to avoid third party data collection is that they simply want more online privacy. They don’t want untold, anonymous companies amassing all that information on them, for any kind of use. Put together, the vast amount of data that’s been collected on you would tell a bad actor all they need to know to send a convincing spear-phishing message. That’s just one problem posed by all of this.
Cookie Preferences and Other Online Miracles
Thankfully, the privacy sector has caught up with people’s calls for greater data protection. iOS began letting Apple users manually turn on and off data access in Settings in a 2020 software update. Data privacy laws expand from patient confidentiality to breach notification regulations. For example, companies must notify you if your data has been exposed or accessed. Protections like these have sprung up in recent years as more and more people pose their concerns about who can access their information and where it’s being sold
You may also have noticed an uptick in website pop-ups, asking you to share or decline accessing cookies. These are crumbs of data that let your browser remember the sites you visit often or even account information, so that you can more easily get down to business. However, this is also what third party companies use to track and sell to you. While the websites often make it arduous to decline data tracking (about as obnoxious as it can be to Unsubscribe from mass marketing emails!) there are currently far more places on the web that at least give you the option to move about without trackers. This is also where they list their data policy, and thus where you can find more information about what third parties they are potentially selling to or sharing information.
What else can you do to shake off these marketers? Certain web browsers automatically block trackers while you use them. You can also operate in secret browsing modes, which may go by various names depending on the browser you prefer (i.e., Chrome Incognito, Private on Firefox). Alternatively, VPNs offer an added layer of security between you and your searches so that your online activity is harder to connect to your computer’s IP address.
When it comes to protecting your online privacy, you have to be aware of who wants your data, why and how they intend to get it. Then you can begin to build a plan to keep it safe. What works for keeping out the average hacker won’t stop Instagram ads from recommending posts based on your last Google search!
What’s next in data protection? Perhaps, like parts of Europe, we will implement something similar to the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which took a broad approach to personal data in 2018, as opposed to the series of laws dealing with different kinds of data that the U.S. has in place now. In general, rising concerns about data protection suggests that the coming years will only expand and improve consumer privacy online.