We know that Google, Facebook, and Twitter store information about who we are and how we interact with their services to target us with personalised ads. This data harvesting may seem innocuous enough, and I hear you say if they show me ads, I'd rather see ones I'm interested in. However, the amount of data they store though is alarming. Download the information that Google stores via Google Takeout, and you will be shocked at the sheer quantity of data they hold. With confusing and convoluted privacy settings that are clumped together to prevent proper control, information is inevitably shared with data brokers and analytics companies. This huge amassing of data and user profiling is changing the way we live our online lives, restricting our freedom of expression and ultimately threatening our right to privacy. Think it won't happen to you? Recent data from Risk Based Security states an estimated 36 billion records were exposed online in 2020!
The definition of personal data is information recorded about an individual who is either identified or identifiable, directly or indirectly.
For example, this could be data linked to a name, date of birth, fingerprint, identification number, or other factors.
There is no definitive answer to this question, and reports vary wildly; however, the data brokering industry generates billions of dollars of revenue based on your information. Your individual data value may also vary depending on many factors, including your wealth, age, race, and sex.
Is data the new oil? It depends on who you ask. It is undoubtedly a massive asset and powers some of the biggest companies in the world.
Your data is gathered in such detail that it paints a precise picture of who you are, your values, habits, interests, employment, and much more. Companies exploit your data to win your custom. It is so valuable that companies such as Google and Facebook offer all their services for free in exchange for your data.
Consider the apps you frequently use on your phone, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Messenger, WhatsApp, Google, Uber, they are all harvesting your data, and all have individual privacy settings. These privacy settings are often confusing and compiled in a manner that doesn't give you complete control over how your data is recorded. And if you do switch off settings such as location services, then the app will not function as you need it. So are you being forced into sharing your data? This is a question many people are asking?
The list of businesses that collect your data is endless. It is far easier to assume that a service you regularly use is using your data in some way. Social media apps are top of the list and collect more data than anybody else with Facebook unsurprisingly trumping the others. Companies such as Google often have a whole suite of products that are gathering your data. Google Maps, for example, collects and stores data on your entire location history, YouTube, every video you have ever watched, and Gmail your personal details. It’s not only big tech that is storing your personal information. Even smaller local businesses store your data. Your name, email, age, sex, marital status are all commonplace questions that you supply the answers to via online registrations, competitions, discount offers, and purchases. The more information a company collects, the more detailed profiles they can compile to direct their services more accurately. Using your data to fine-tune a business and improve service is ideal and is why we supply our data in the first place; however, what we may not consider when we provide our email is that the business can sell that information to data brokers.
A data broker gathers personal information from public records and online resources such as social networks, online stores, search engines, games, apps, and other programs to analyse and create cohorts that they sell to third parties.
Data brokers will often use offline public records, including property sales, marriage certificates, court records, census data, voter registration, and motor vehicle records to gain personal information. Online sources can often provide far more data to a broker and are gained when we exchange data on social media or apps that we use and in more subtle ways such as cookies, IP addresses, and web beacons.
Data brokers make money by supplying your information either bundled together with other similar profiles or as individuals to anybody who wants it. Clients of a data broker may include political campaigns, financial institutions, real estate companies, or anybody willing to spend money to access information.
Undoubtedly the company tracking and collecting our personal data the most is Facebook, but other social media platforms are also top of the list such as TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and Pinterest to name a few. Many of these companies will be recording a whole host of information from ordinary details to more complex data such as facial and voice recognition.
Data is used in every way imaginable, from directing ad campaigns to streamlining business processes to hackers stealing money from your credit cards. While the brokers hold your data, they are governed by the law on how they conduct their business; however once that information is leaked into the public forum by data breaches, it can become a free-for-all.
This isn't entirely possible. Many of the big tech company's business models rely upon harvesting your data and processing it for profit. If you want to continue using their services, and let's face it, who doesn't need Google Maps or Amazon next day delivery in their lives, then you may have to relinquish a certain amount of your data. However, it is possible to curtail their reaping of your personal information by carefully reviewing your settings options. By restricting location services, web tracking, and ad services, you can limit the data you provide, and by deleting caches of information that they hold, you can further control the potential for your data being sold or leaked.
As we have discussed, data breaches are commonplace and put millions of people's personal data and finances at risk. It is difficult to control your data and even harder to record who owns and uses it. The solution to this issue needs to be a security system that enables you and properly authorised third-party organisations, to access your data without creating additional security risks. Blockchain networks, such as Bitcoin, provide incredible opportunities in this field.
The most impressive advantage of blockchain and cryptographic technology is that it provides an immutable store of data, proving ownership and administrating how data is used at every step. Incorporating encrypted data into this immutable technology means that unwilling modification or theft becomes almost impossible, and sharing this data is secured even further with end-to-end encryption. Blockchain technology gives you control of your data and with whom you share it.
Blockchain is recognised as a great asset storage system. Developments such as zero-knowledge proofs enable you to prove that data is within a specific range without sharing that data. This technology allows you to prove to your bank that you can repay your loan without giving them your actual finance data.
Blockchain technology is decentralised and does not rely on one central point of control; therefore it is harder to obtain data illegally.
Blockchain solutions make it possible to enable and remove access to specific token-backed files, in addition to changing ownership of those files on the fly, allowing you to share only particular data with the companies you choose.
Blockchain offers the enticing vision of a world where you can transact without having to hand over every part of your transaction details or remember the name of your mother’s favourite childhood pet.
The most impressive advantage of blockchain and cryptographic technology is that these systems can serve as an immutable store of data. Now you might wonder how that benefits data privacy exactly. The answer is simple; it can prove ownership of data and administrate how it is being used. Solutions based on this technology can give you back control of your data and with whom it is shared.
LifeHash is a personal blockchain solution based on the Bitcoin and DigiByte Blockchain. And whilst it is no ultimate one-stop solution to all your privacy concerns, it is the first step you can take to protect and control your personal data.
‘Digital Life’ is a term used to describe a variety of aspects ranging from the increasing reliance on digital technology to your life being recorded in digital files on the internet.
Deleting your digital footprint may be almost impossible but simple steps like downloading a copy of your Google data and then erasing their copy can go a long way to removing your online presence.
1. Use strong passwords and two-factor authentication
2. Steer clear of unsecured public wifi
3. Be smart with personal information
4. Don’t open unrecognised links
5. Back up your data and delete online data held by third parties such as google.