A wise Internet user once said, “If you’re not paying for something, you are not the customer. You are the product being sold.” It is emerging just how true that is, with the amount of personal data that services collect and sell. Take Google for example. You do not pay anything to use Gmail, YouTube, Chrome or Google Maps; even the search engine is free. Yet, Alphabet, the company that owns Google earned US $ 110.86 billion in 2017 and hires more than 94,000 people.
How does a company, which does not charge its users make close to one hundred and eleven billion US dollars? Simple, they sell you. More accurately, they sell information about you. It’s more than just general information like age and gender. Alarmingly, it also includes data such as where you go, what you do there, things you like to do, and who you meet. The most scary part? You gave them permission to do this.
Companies pay a premium for this kind of personal data because it helps them to accurately pinpoint possible clients and market to them specifically. Usually, the data does not contain identifying information, but it doesn’t take much to tie existing data to a certain individual. Let’s examine this from what would be a common scenario for many people. You want to meet some friends for coffee. You look up “Coffee Houses near me” and pick one from the results, and you get a prompt asking if you want to give your browser access to your location. There are only two options, “Allow” and “Block.” You choose allow and proceed to pick a location that you’d like. You might then get an Uber to the location or use Google Maps to give you directions there. Just from this interaction, you have allowed your phone enough information about yourself to create a profile, which over time becomes even more specific. Add this to the personal information you put up on social media, and you are even more vulnerable.
Anyone hellbent on finding you can do so surprisingly easily. This is dangerous. It could be a jealous ex, a fraudster, an identity thief, or even your boss. People can track your movements, establish your behavioural patterns and spy on you unknowingly. Aside from invasion of your privacy, sensitive information could be used against you.
It is worth taking a few precautions, such as turning off location when you’re not using it. If possible, learn how to live without it. You could also remove unused apps from your phone but before doing so, erase all the personal data they collected. In addition, be careful about what you share on social media. If you can, turn off features such as geotagging and ‘anyone can view’ settings. Furthermore, delete cookies or browse privately. Cookies enable websites to keep track of your preferences and lastly, beware of sites that ask you to give personal data they may not need.
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