Data breaches that expose millions of records, like the Equifax theft in 2017, get a lot of attention. Consumers feel betrayed and are outraged that their personal information was not better protected. Unfortunately, these newsworthy events mask a more insidious problem – the personal information we give away every day, unknowingly. Little tidbits, here and there, are collected, traded, aggregated, analyzed, sold, and used in ways we can hardly imagine.
Currently, we have little control over how this happens, but as awareness grows, so will the pressure on brands and legislators to create more transparency and to facilitate informed decision-making by the person whose information is being collected.
Here is just a peek into how your information can be gleaned and used.
Social media provides a wealth of insight into personal characteristics. First, most people provide their account information truthfully: name, date of birth, place of residence, etc., so all of the data generated about them is connected to a real person. That data includes the results of collecting and analyzing every action you take. What posts did you like or respond to? What keywords, like “garden,” are included in your posts? What are the ages, races, locations of your “friends?” Have you been talking about buying a new home or car? Have you clicked on an ad for online counselling? How often do you win Words with Friends? That’s a measure of education and intelligence, and an indicator for income – but income will be confirmed when aggregated with other information about you.
You’re wondering if you should buy a house and what you can afford. Well, there’s an easy way to do that – the online mortgage calculator. And that income amount you enter is now tied to your IP address, which can then be tied to your name via Facebook data. Income confirmed.
Search Engines and Browsers
Analytics are not just for web developers and advertisers. You are also being analyzed by the search terms you enter, the sites and ad links you click on, the time, and the day of the week you’re doing most of your searching and browsing. Tidbits. But that search on “symptoms of depression” can now be tied to your clicking on the ad for online counselling. And then, …
Your mom thinks you have an Indigenous great-great-grandmother, and you think it would be cool to get your DNA tested. That turns out not to be true, but you are 10% Asian. Interesting! Even more interested than you are is the pharmaceutical company that just bought your DNA and is analyzing it along with your generated profile indicating an issue with depression.
And on it goes
Facebook launched a dating app that collects a lot more very personal information about its users. Voice-controlled devices have the ability to listen in on your conversations. Apps preloaded on your phone track your location. Wearables like Fitbit (which by the way is now owned by Google) and the Apple Watch collect health information about you.
The big data breaches remind us about what’s out there and how vulnerably our information is to hackers. But we need to also be reminded about what we are giving away, and put more pressure on those who are collecting our information, as well as those who are purchasing it. Technology is a wonderful tool that is used in many positive ways. For that to continue, we need transparency to build trust.