How much do companies actually know about you?

October 9, 2020

How much do companies actually know about you? 

Just as oil made the industrial age possible, data now plays a similar role in the information age. One key difference, however, is that drilling for oil meant digging deep into the earth. Drilling for data, on the other hand, means that companies are extracting much of this key resource from the activities and the personal lives of people all over the world.

Many of the world’s biggest companies – Google, Facebook, Amazon, and others in their respective fields – make their profits either directly or indirectly through digital advertising. As a general rule, when high-quality online services are provided ‘free’ for users, the service providers usually receive your data in exchange.

This trade often feels like a win-win transaction; your life becomes easier and more convenient, while businesses online get to specifically target you with tailored advertisements. But it is worth taking a closer look to see just how much you are giving up in the name of convenience.

The devil is in the details

In 2015, the world discovered an alarming passage in the user agreement of a popular Smart TV manufacturer. Deep in the product’s privacy policy, Samsung acknowledges that their TVs record audio from their surrounding environment and deliver it to third parties. In other words, that TV in your living room was listening to your private conversations and then selling them to unnamed businesses.

This type of audio recording tool – part of the TV’s convenient voice command feature – probably did help the Smart TV manufacturer and its partners improve their voice recognition tools, leading to better AI software for the benefit of users. But for many, the invasion of privacy represented a serious and disturbing breach of trust.

Yet this remarkable user agreement actually fits in well with growing trends across the digital world. Indeed, anything that any of us do online leaves an extensive digital trail.

Depending on your privacy settings, companies like Google and Facebook know who your friends are, where you are every minute of the day, your entire search history, the contents of all your messages and emails, phone habits, YouTube history, contacts, photos, online purchases, social media activity, and the topics that interest you.

They also have access to the music you listen to, the games you play, the events you attended, the files you downloaded, the websites you visited, every ad you ever clicked on, and so much more – including the information in all of the above categories that you thought you had deleted.

(Google Takeout lets you access the data that Google has stored about you and your activities; Google Timeline and My Activities present some of this data in an easy-to-review form. To view the information that Facebook has collected about you, click here. Results may depend on your privacy settings.)

Putting together your own privacy policy

Some of the above trends are now changing in favor of user privacy, particularly as governments focus more closely on regulating the types of data collection that are allowed.

Users, too, have a say in how their data may be collected or used. Changing your privacy settings can limit the type and amount of data that digital entities can collect about you, so it is worth taking these options seriously if you are concerned about data collection.

Read through the terms and conditions and understand what you are allowing if you use a given product or service. Reject what you find intrusive and embrace what helps with your internet experience. Google Chrome may be convenient, but analysts say that browsers like Brave and Firefox do a better job of preserving your privacy as you use the web.

Above all, understand that tradeoffs are inevitable. The more you benefit from online services, the more someone else is likely profiting from your data trail. A free, customized user experience is a wonderful thing – but we each need to decide how much of our privacy we are prepared to sacrifice in order to get it.

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