Creative literature talks about walls having eyes, and the same is true about the internet. Whether you rely on the internet for communication or financial transactions, the internet likely knows what you’re doing.
Given the amount of data online servers capture, including your browser history, Google searches, and overall digital footprint, you can imagine how much your personal details can be available for companies to use.
This can be terrifying to think about, especially once baking ads appear on Facebook after you searched for a certain recipe yesterday.
We can’t help but wonder–what do data companies do with our data? What kind of data do they collect and use? More importantly, how can you protect yourself from identity theft and fraudulent activities?
All these bother us, too, especially since feeling that someone is tracking your every step on the internet can be bothersome.
So, to understand how data collection works and what we can do about it as consumers, we’ve conducted in-depth research. We looked into several online resources, read discussions on independent sites, and sought expert insights on increasing your online privacy.
Don’t miss some of the crucial steps you can take to increase your online privacy, and learn about the best thing you can do to control what data big tech companies can collect from you.
What actually happens with your data?
Companies have access to your data–that’s a fact. Given how the digital world has changed our lives, we can safely say that content is the new currency.
We head to social media to communicate with our loved ones and rely on countless platforms to purchase, create, and transact with companies. And in exchange for this content, companies access our data for their use.
Companies collect multiple types of data, including our names, date of birth, contact numbers, and of course, email addresses. However, they can also store more obscure information, including hobbies, favorite colors, pets, and digital activities.
This raw data then goes through analyses, turning it into usable information called insights.
How they use this extracted information depends on the business they have. Marketing or advertising companies prefer extracting obscure information like your habits and buying patterns for targeted advertising.
Big tech companies, on the other hand, can capture your social media accounts to help you sign in and create a more seamless and personalized user experience.
Thankfully, data collection isn’t all bad. Companies can also use your data to personalize your experience. Saved passwords can help you log in faster, for instance, while sites can customize ads according to your preferences.
Popular social media platforms, including Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, are notorious for data collection, but this doesn’t always guarantee your safety. If it falls into the wrong hands, you’ll suffer the consequences.
How do big tech companies collect your data?
Apart from knowing what your data is used for, it’s also paramount to understand how companies collect your data. There are multiple ways, but here are three of the most prevalent processes:
They simply ask you for your data, which may include the following:
- Entering your email in exchange for a report
- Rating services based on stars
- Completing a survey after purchasing from a brand in exchange for free goods
- Answering a few questions after a customer service call
All these are popular methods companies use to extract your data, and from what you can tell, they’re not always explicit. You give away your data without thinking much about it, especially since you gain something in return.
They track your activity. Companies can easily trace your digital footprint, which is why they can track your history, consumer behavior, purchase patterns, and so on.
All the websites you visit track your activity, including how many hours you’ve spent on the platform, what content you engage with, what content you ignore, users you follow, and so on.
They purchase consumer data. Unfortunately, your data has become the new currency, and data collection companies take advantage of this.
Brands purchase consumer data from other brands, and they do this by doing the leg work of data gathering and collection. With time and resources on their hands, they make data collection a business venture.
How can you benefit from this data collection?
If you’re wondering if you can benefit from the data collection process, the short answer is yes. However, there are limits to consider, especially with the current digital climate.
Identity theft cases are on the rise, so it’s essential to understand exactly how you benefit from data collection. Why is data collection important, anyway?
You benefit mainly through personalization, which helps make your experience seamless, relevant, and valuable.
Personalization has many faces, but the following can help you understand why you enjoy platforms, shop, and continue to patronize the digital world:
- Social media platforms ensure that you enjoy the content you see. The posts, articles, videos, and images you see regularly are all based on the algorithm developed from your preferences, engagement behavior, and so on.
- Marketers and advertisers spend so much money trying to catch your attention, which is why they need your data to tailor the ads they show. For instance, if you’re in your 20s, you’re more likely to click on a Nike ad over retirement home offers.
- Everyone wants to personalize their experience, especially companies. This is the reason you receive birthday coupons on your birth month, as well as receive greeting cards during the holidays. They don’t simply blast emails and hope they reach the right person—they do it for you based on the data collected.
Do companies sell consumer data?
Our immediate assumption is that companies do sell your data for profit. Digging deeper, however, we realized how valuable our data is–which is why they’ll likely keep things locked away in their respective files.
It’s also important to understand these companies don’t use raw and individual data but rely on extracted insights that bring more value. This requires additional time and resources, making it a waste just to sell your data.
However, some companies make data the heart of their business. They gather, extract, and analyze data with third-party data brokers and sell them to relevant companies that may find the data useful.
This is the downside of data gathering, as consumers don’t always know that their personal information is at stake. Some brands sell it to various companies you may not necessarily interact with, but based on user patterns extracted, you’re a potential customer.
As a result, you begin seeing ads for credit cards, car deals, and even online shopping ads.
Is it legal for businesses to collect your personal information?
Now that you have a better sense of how data collection works and where your data goes, only one question remains–is this legal?
The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an existing European law that requires companies to ask permission and share data under an individual’s full control to access, delete, and control data use.
How long can companies keep personal data? Under the GDPR, a company can store it indefinitely as long as the purpose remains unfulfilled.
Unlike Europe’s comprehensive privacy law, the United States doesn’t have a singular law that encompasses data privacy of all types. It operates on a mix of laws instead, usually targeting specific data.
Some examples include:
- The Fair Credit Reporting Act, or FCRA, which limits who can see your credit reports and how companies obtain this data
- The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which covers specific information you share with healthcare providers, insurers, and related companies
- The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule, or COPPA, which limits what data companies can collect for children under the age of 13
- The Federal Trade Commission Act, which enables the FTC to investigate and enforce laws on companies that violate their own policies
Some laws, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act or CCPA, aim to protect the citizens’ data privacy and operate even if the business involved is outside the state.
As of writing, only California, Connecticut, Utah, Virginia, and Colorado have comprehensive data privacy laws for consumers.
You agree to let them collect your data through the Terms and Conditions they provide prior to website or app use. This makes data collection completely legal, but there are limitations to this.
For one, it’s important to remember that other companies actually pay to gain access to data.
Although not necessarily illegal, the companies who use this data aren’t always honest about what they do with your data, much less inform you about it.
Laws surrounding data privacy can be extremely complex and, in our opinion, require quite a bit of updating. We all deserve to feel safe in the digital world, too.
Is it legal for them to sell customer information?
Most companies don’t sell your information because it’s valuable to them. However, some companies do so for profit, and they can do so legally if they mention it in the Terms and Conditions.
Finding out what personal information big tech companies store
With data collection in big companies being prevalent, how can you tell which information they keep? Here are some ways to tell what they know about you:
Facebook is notorious for tracking its users’ data within the app. By default, it also tracks your activity outside of Facebook to show you more personalized ads.
If you want to know what sort of data they keep about you, you can follow these steps:
- Step 1: Go to the desktop version of the website and log onto your Facebook account.
- Step 2: Locate the drop-down menu on the top-right corner of the page, then click on “Settings & Privacy.”
- Step 3: Select “Privacy Center.” There should be a “Collection” section discussing what the site collects. You can access and review your personal information there.
Although you can modify what type of data Facebook shares with advertisers and other parties, you can’t fully prevent the site from collecting your personal information as long as you use its platform.
On Google, you can control and delete the information that the site stores. You can do so by logging onto your account and visiting the Activity Controls page.
Under the “Web & App Activity” and “Location History” sections, you can remove your data and opt to turn off tracking.
You can also turn on the “auto-delete” feature that automatically deletes stored information after the number of months you set.
At the bottom of the page, you can also see whether ad personalization is on. You can visit the Ad Settings page to view what Google lets advertisers know about you. Then, you can turn off personalization.
You can also view the data that Apple collects about you. To do so, visit the Data & Privacy website and log onto your Apple account.
Then, you can request a copy of your data under the “Manage your data” section. Apple will then email you a compilation of your data.
Is your data still at risk even if companies don’t sell it?
Although not necessarily negative, data collection lacks security measures, which is true even for companions with billions of dollars behind their backs. Canva, Adobe, and American Express have all been victims of data breaches, placing stakeholders in precarious situations.
Data breaches are rarely the result of bad faith or neglect—sometimes, identity thieves are simply sophisticated and crafty. Unfortunately, this does not diminish the fact that we, as end users, are at risk.
Since websites and apps collect various types of data, a data breach essentially mirrors a broken dam—information gets leaked at an unprecedented rate, and you end up losing your privacy. Some infamous instances include the following:
- Zoom recently connected user accounts to LinkedIn profiles without consent. As a result, this revealed names and professions, even those who chose to linger in the interface as anonymous users.
- Facebook created a database that allowed employees to access millions of passwords for over seven years.
How to Protect Your Digital Privacy
Peter Strahan, founder and CEO of IT and cybersecurity support company Lantech, stresses that web users are always at risk for data breaches.
“Often web users are looking for quick fixes when it comes to protecting their personal data, one example of this is the emerging market of VPNs. What should be clear to all who intend to use VPNs is that unless you are paying, you are not protected,” Strahan reports.
“Often, these free VPN trials are doing exactly what you are trying to avoid–tracking and selling your data, this is how it remains free for them.”
According to Strahan, the best way to protect your data is to use Google’s web browsing features, as these offer more comprehensive protection than free VPN services.
Apart from this, you can also consider the following tips:
- Share less on your forms! If it’s optional, don’t give it away—especially your phone numbers.
- Create alternative email addresses, preferably ones not associated with your social media and bank accounts.
- Review privacy settings carefully, along with terms and conditions.
- Create a strong and reliable password, taking extra care not to share them with anyone.
You may think you’re in good hands with the right companies, but the truth is whatever you put out there is always in testy waters.
Big companies like Adobe and American Express suffer from unprecedented data breaches, playing their customer information database at risk and, by default, the actual end-user.
What can we gather from all these? Simple—your data is always at risk. So, it’s important to take extra steps to protect your privacy online because as much as we rely on the internet for everything, safety isn’t always guaranteed. Stay safe out there!