There is no need to give you background information on the issue we will discuss today. Almost all, if not all, internet users know that their personal data is not safe online. This has always been the case, but the issue has only worsened in the past decade and big scandals like the one concerning Cambridge Analytica have revealed exactly how bad the situation is.

We will talk about some of these big data breaches, but we will mainly concentrate on how websites use your data, who they can sell it to, and the measures against this catastrophic reality that were put in place by responsible companies and state governments.

How Websites Get Your Data

Website user tracking

Nowadays, you don’t have to sign up for a website with your email to have your data used and sold by the said website. All you need to do is visit it. The websites use the so-called website tracking technique to gather information about every visitor. Some use it for analytical purposes only; tracking user demographics to improve their websites.

Many others though use it for both analytical and marketing purposes. When you visit a website, so called “cookies” are gathered about you. A cookie is a text containing data that identifies your computer. Every website stores cookies and accesses cookies you have stored on your computer.

This allows websites to find out everything about your online browsing habits, including websites you visit, websites you purchase from, and so on. Thus, a website can construct a whole dossier on you, including places you visited, both in real life and online, products you’ve bought, and so on and so on.

How Websites Use Your Data

A 2017 study has revealed that 79% of websites use website tracking. The majority of them use it for marketing purposes, although they also use it to improve their website and its services. The result is targeted ads.

People no longer wonder why they continue to get ads for a website on other websites after visiting it just once. Let us be realistic though, some people genuinely like targeted ads. They like getting recommendations for restaurants or stores in their area, they also like learning about things that they were already interested in.

Others, however, don’t like falling into a loop seeing the same ads over and over again or be made to purchase something after that said thing was recommended time and time again. Sometimes these people can give feedback on certain ads and remove them if they are of no interest, but that’s not always a possibility.

Another interesting, or rather scary, part of targeted ads is that it appears they are not always tied to cookies. What we mean by that is that people have reported seeing product ads without ever searching for similar products online.

One couple, for example, talked about cat food for a few days (they didn’t have a cat, so they never bought cat food) and they began receiving cat food ads. Big social media platforms like Facebook have claimed that they can’t access your phone’s microphone to eavesdrop, and they are probably telling the truth, but some apps can and have done that.

An app might ask to access your microphone and if you click “accept” even once, it’s game over until you delete the app. Alphonso, for instance, is a data-collecting company, which embeds data tracking software in various apps, some of which can record conversations. The company can later sell your data to other websites, and that’s how you end up with cat food ads on Facebook.

Truth is, this is not always illegal, so you can have your most private data sold to a third party without even noticing. In addition, you might have even authorized it yourself by agreeing to their terms and conditions, so the apps would not be liable.

Sometimes though it is illegal. This was the case with Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British political consultant firm. Investigation showed that they illegally obtained data from over 87 million Facebook profiles without user consent.

They did that through “This Is Your Digital Life” – a Facebook personality quiz app. Upon doing the quiz, Facebook users opened their profiles, even their direct messages, to the app creators. The app creators then used the data to build complex psychological profiles on each user and even on those in the user’s friends list.

The findings were later sold to Cambridge Analytica, and the consultant firm used it to find eligible voters and target ads to swing them in a specific direction. This has shown to have helped the campaigns of Senator Ted Cruz and former President Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica whistle-blowers said it also helped Brexit happen, but there was insufficient evidence in court.

How to Stop Data Collection

Shortly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the EU brought in measures to combat the senseless data collection.

The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP), active since May 25, 2018, allows users to know how their data is used by each website and they can decline almost all cookies they are presented with. Non-EU countries should follow this lead because it should be up to the user whether they want to share their personal data or not.

Still, some feel this is not enough, so they use additional protection from predatory sites and apps. Some people use a VPN to hide and change their location and/or use encrypted browsers like Tor and encrypted messaging apps like Telegram.

It’s also important that you read the terms and conditions of various sites and apps, no matter how boring they are. You should do whatever it takes to guard your Internet safety.

By James