The Startup
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The Startup

How our data is used and misused online

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In 2020 advertising and data mining is everywhere. Everyday our interactions with the web be it shopping or browsing social media, our data is being collected and analysed for the sole purpose of financial gain and controlling our behavior. If we look at data as a currency you can see the value of it to companies, the more data companies have on us the more our habits can be tracked and therefore we can be targeted more accurately.

To understand how our data is used we first must look at how companies collect our data and sell to us. One of the most common ways companies collect our data is when we hand it over willingly. We may not realise we do this but when we download apps or sign up to websites we accept terms and conditions and in turn allow our data to be collected. This is often true of ‘free services’ which aren’t always free. We often pay in our personal data which allows companies to mine data and use it to sell to you or sell this to other companies. In the past we were given a choice through opting into allowing companies to use our data but as the value of data has skyrocketed these choices have been stripped away allowing companies to collect data once we use their services.

Another way in which our data is collected and tracked is through Cookies, Social Media Trackers and Fingerprinters. For example a Cookie is a piece of text that a web server stores on your hard disk, these allow a web site to store information on our systems to be retrieved later, companies then ping messages to their servers to collect this data. These Cookies follow you from site to site gathering data about what we do online, allowing them to see what we’ve visited and what our buying habits are like. This comes in the form of targeted ads and suggestions and a lot of the time we allow cookies on websites purely due to the fact that the pop-ups asking us to allow cookies often restricts our use of web pages therefore we want to get rid of it as quickly as possible, regardless of the consequences.

These add-ons are sold to us on the basis that they make life easier by allowing us to seamlessly use different sites and create a tailored environment, but on the other hand they allow companies to track you through different sites and applications. As with everything there are trade offs, do we allow ourselves to be constantly tracked and our data mined to speed up our use of the internet, or do we have a less seamless experience but keep our data intact.

As the growth of smart products has risen over the years it has given companies greater chance to obtain our data. Our smartphones contain a wealth of information that can allow companies to advertise to us using personal information. This is done through various apps that we have allowed access to our personal data. One of the main types of data used is locational data, by allowing companies access to this it can help companies and shops pinpoint our location allowing marketers to be notified when we walk past a store and how much time is spent there.This can add to our shopping or browsing experience but is giving companies and unfiltered look of our lives and the places we visit. Following on from this the rise of smart devices and Internet of Things devices (think Alexa and google hub) in our homes are a gold mine for advertisers and marketers. The more connected we and our devices are means that data miners have more access to our data and in turn marketers are able to pinpoint and more accurately focus on our habits. The more data we allow to be collected from connected devices the more insight and accuracy companies have.
Although there are many ways we are tracked which we know about and willing to accept — there are some applications and websites that act as a trojan horse or backdoor to our data. When we download apps we accept terms and conditions allowing data miners access to our personal data without our consent and this is the real issue. Once we give this consent we rarely have a say in how our data is regulated and used but when we don’t give consent this takes away our ability to choose already limited options. Furthermore our data is sold off to third party companies by companies we have given our data to. This data can be used for experiments to find out what works and what doesn’t and how companies can use data more efficiently. Imagine being used for a social experiment without giving consent in our day to day lives. A great example of this is Cambridge Analytica who used data mining and brokerage in the form of a Facebook quiz to collect hundreds of thousands of data points off of users and used it to create strategic communications to influence various electoral process.

So how is this data actually used ? One use is when we access a website an instant auction takes place for ad space between third party companies wanting to sell to you. They access our collected data to determine how valuable we are to companies so they can make accurate bids. At the start of this process all adverts are weighted the same as they are all equally likely to be clicked on. However, over time as different adverts take precedence the weighting becomes unbalanced so the higher weighted advert will display more frequently.

This targeted advertising only works with our data being collected and collated into usable structures and all of these types of data collection all lead to creating a digital version of us. Lizzie O’shea best defined these ‘digital versions’ as our abstract identities:

‘Our abstract identities, if we understand that to mean our social, political and economic preferences as determined by the data collected about us, are generated and then repeatedly refined and used to determine advertising for us’

These abstract identities are anonymous but follow us throughout our digital usage and gives companies an accurate picture of our habits, personalities and what makes us tick. These data selves are constantly added and amended to depending on what decisions we make online and we have no control over what is added or not added to them (I like to think of it like an evil twin that’s made up of specific parts of our tastes and habits). As we have no decision over this it restricts our autonomy as they influence our personalities and tastes online, which in turn has an impact of our online experiences. In this regard we have no control over who knows this information about us and what exactly they have obtained.
Although our data selves are anonymous it’s evident that in today’s age this data can be easily used to pinpoint the owner, breaching our data and leaving us vulnerable. Using Open Source Intelligence techniques or social media alone we can find out a wealth of information about people, companies and products, so with the amount of data our abstract identities carry it would be easy to reverse engineer to link this to a real world person. This clearly infringes on our privacy and security and is one of the main reasons we should have more control over our data collection and usage.
The issue here is that connected and ubiquitous computing has allowed us to live everyday lives with ease, maximising efficiency in work and social lives and we couldn’t imagine life without it. But due to this we are giving away our information to a point where it can be difficult, if not impossible, to limit the information known about us, as we’re increasingly more connected its becoming harder to stop data mining and misuse of our data.

The internet should be an open and equal shared space, however through advertising and data mining we are seeing disparity in class and social standings. Targeted advertising means that someone from a lower income won’t see the same advertising as someone with a higher income — this narrows our choices and starts to fragment us and create social divisions — through separating our abstract or online selves, it starts to separate us in the real world. We can see how the collection and use of our data is affecting our every day lives and our digital lives so it’s important to take control of what data is collected and that we have a say in how it is used.

Although there are negatives to data collection and how it’s used there are of course positives. Data can be used to better aspects of urban environments such as traffic flow to create safer cities and more opportunities to connect us. It can also be used to to help smaller business’ grow and reach a concentrated and relevant customer base, in turn growing different areas of business and our economy.We’re even at a point where personal data can be used to assess the eligibility of farmers and small business owners in poorer communities for financial products to grow there businesses, this is especially prevalent in emerging markets where growth is important.
There are also positives to targeted advertising in that we see more of things we want to and less of what we don’t, filtering out noise on social media and websites, allowing us to spend more time on content we’re interested in, in a fully tailored experience — but we need to remember this can restrict us from seeing new or important content.

Although there are positives and negatives, it’s up to us individually to decide on how we use our data and what we let companies collect and know about us. Some of us want to be completely private, others like to have a tailored digital life and are happy for companies to collect their data. I think the important thing is understanding what this means and educating ourselves so that we’re comfortable with this and what companies know about us. Education is a huge part of this as most of us don’t know what we’re accepting or subscribing too, we’re not paying attention. We see these cookie pop ups and terms and services as road blocks, slowing down our digital experience, we sometimes don’t know what we’re giving away and this takes away the ability of making informed decisions. Companies have a responsibility to educate their users on this and make users clearly aware of what they’re accepting. A step in the right direction is companies being completely transparent with what data they collect, where its stored and what it’s used for. We should be in control of our data and able to track what is collected and have the option to obtain our collected data and have companies delete it if we want. By being in control we can stop the misuse of our data or at least allow it to be used how we want.

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Ronan

Ronan

UX Design, Research and all things tech

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