Sometimes, these things are relatively harmless, but the Cambridge Analytica scandal shows that our data is extremely valuable to others. Many of us do not know what personal data is out there or who might have it. So, who is actually after your data?
Advertisers want to put their product in front of people who are more likely to buy it. Because of this, advertising networks use data such as your IP (which reveals your general location), the OS you are running (thus allowing networks to, for example, target ads for Mac software only to people running Mac computers), what ISP you are using, etc.
At some levels, it’s relatively harmless. When the internet shows you an ad for a sale at a store down the road, it makes sense that you would get that information and not somebody in another state.
However, advertisers can sometimes gather much more data via browser tracking, which might reveal your marital status, sexual orientation, hobbies, and much more.
IoT Service Providers
Smart fridges, home assistants, etc, are all designed to learn about you so that they can predict your habits and improve convenience. Convenience, though, often comes at the cost of privacy.
That smart fridge that determines that you are almost out of milk and places an order with your grocery provider has to connect to the internet to do so. Your DVR, if you have one, contains a wealth of information about your viewing habits.
As these devices become more sophisticated, your DVR might start suggesting shows based off of what is already on its hard drive, and it might send those suggestions to your phone.
While you might not care if somebody knows how much milk you drink, there have been instances of home assistants recording conversations when nobody in the room knew they were recording.
Your Insurance Company
We all know that sometimes insurance companies will give discounts based off of habits that lower your risk.
Safe driving discounts, health insurers increasing premiums to smokers, your home insurer giving a discount if you have a security system installed, etc. As “big data” becomes more and more a thing, though, your insurance company might be able to mine your data, assess your risk, and charge you (or drop you) accordingly.
It might be dystopian to imagine losing health insurance because you made one too many visits to McDonald’s in a given month, but… On the other hand, your health insurer can save money and improve convenience by providing refill reminders, etc.
Scientists and Economists
Aggregate data is of great value to scientists, economists, etc. Those who study human behavior want to know what 18- to 25-year-olds are buying, etc.
In medicine, large amounts of data can help discover correlations between drugs and diseases. Big data is not all bad, and many people would be quite willing to allow aggregate data to be used.
However, there is still a balance. Political data can also be valuable to both political scientists and candidates.
How Much Is Your Data Worth?
According to one estimate, an individual’s personal data is worth about $240 a year. However, the value of your data depends on who is after it.
To an advertiser, the value of your data depends on whether you are part of their target audience. If you make a Facebook post publicly saying you are splitting with your spouse, then you just became valuable to divorce lawyers. If you just changed your relationship status from single to engaged, then wedding planners are after your data.
You only experience that value indirectly – if the advertisement is actually useful, or if the medical research helps your doctor know which drug to prescribe.
There are some ways to monetize your own data, but it is unlikely to get you much cash. And, of course, your most sensitive personal data is extremely valuable to hackers and identity thieves.
How Can You Protect Your Data?
If all of this is making you feel uncomfortable, you are not alone. Governments are wrestling with ways to protect the data of their citizens. When it comes to protecting your own data, though, you can take some simple steps:
- Check your privacy settings regularly. Never assume that because you have set them up one way, they will stay that way. A bug or glitch can suddenly put stuff public you were sure was private or add your name to the anonymous email address you use when you don’t want anyone knowing who you are.
- Read the terms of service so you know what a company says they will do with your data. Bear in mind that even the best companies can be hit by a data breach.
- Download all of your apps for your phone or tablet through the official app stores. Avoid torrent sites. If you have to “sideload” an app, check its reputation and reviews.
- Turn off your phone’s Wi-Fi and bluetooth when not using them.
- Block or delete third party cookies. Modern browsers tend to do this by default.
- Use HTTPS Everywhere or a similar privacy extension that forces you to connect to sites securely.
- Always use private/incognito mode when surfing the web on public computers, such as at libraries.
- Consider using a VPN to hide your IP (thus protecting you from geolocation and from your movements being tracked). Using a VPN helps keep you from being tracked by websites.
- Avoid storing your credit card on websites, even if you trust their security. Typing it in every time may be a pain, but replacing a stolen card is far more annoying.
- Never send sensitive information through unencrypted email.
The ultimate answer to “Who is after your data?” is “Lots of people.” Taking steps to keep your identifiable personal data private can protect you from identity theft and fraud, and can give you peace of mind when surfing online.
The best way to do so is to use a VPN and remember that anything you post on social media can become public at any time.