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The Nerd Side Of Life

How to Prevent Online Companies from Collecting your Data

Data is one of the most appreciated resources for tech companies. A lot of business models are centered on it. For example, although the basic services from Google and Facebook are free to users, according to the Washington Post, Google’s advertisement department reported bringing 32.6 billion dollars just in the second quarter of 2019. In the same period, Facebook reported 16.6 billion dollars. To give you a more concrete idea, Facebook said that their 2.41 billion monthly active users generate an average revenue of 7.05 dollars each. Data is definitely worth a lot.

Thanks to the huge amounts of data that are generated each day, advertisement and marketing have gained a staggering complexity and specificity, with campaigns being tailored at the individual level. And this is not even the only way companies are using your data. This has a very dark side since not all companies are being transparent to their customers and governments are failing to create legislation to protect their citizens.

This article explains how companies are using consumer data (and therefore why is so valuable to them) and how you can develop a strategy to minimize the amount of data they can get from you without your consent (sadly, completely stopping it is almost impossible). Informing yourself and choosing consciously is important to stop companies from taking advantage.

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How are companies using your data?

Analyzing it for marketing and sales purposes. There is nothing particularly new about the idea of using data for marketing purposes. Marketing has, from the very beginning, been a very data-driven field. What the internet has now revolutionized is the amount of information (its specificity, diversity, and granularity) that companies save. For a very interesting recount of the history of data collection, read this article by the Wired. This has become the input of new types of algorithms that use models that resemble how the brain works to make predictions: Machine Learning. In the beginning, these models used to be the privilege of just very few companies, but now companies like Microsoft and Amazon offer software that allows smaller companies with comparatively little expertise to implement these types of models. At all stages of the marketing and sales cycles, Machine Learning (also referred to as Artificial Intelligence) is helping companies increase revenue. For example, Netflix has reported getting 80% of their stream time over their recommendations (which, of course, are built on all the information that Netflix saves from their users).

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Selling it to third party companies. Since it is now clear that data has a big value, a lot of companies are willing to pay big money to get it. The IAB Data Center estimated that in 2018, American companies paid around 19.2 billion dollars for third-party audience data together with the analytical solutions to analyze it. The problem is that users are almost never aware that they are agreeing to their data being sold because it is usually stated in the very small letters and buried in the most complicated law vocabulary of the user agreements.

How can you prevent companies from collecting data?

Make an inventory of all the information that is available online. Just going through your social media accounts to see what you have posted will not be enough. The best is to do a background check to figure out what information is out there. Nuwber has developed algorithms that have the capacity to look into all publicly available sources like phone directories, social media networks, businesses, government records, car dealers, real estate agencies, court publications.

Read the terms of service before you sign up for a new service. We are all lazy and just scroll all the way down to check the “I agree” box. However, it is important. Especially in cases, where the data you are sharing can is very sensitive, always check what they are allowed to do. An example, the company 23andme does DNA tests online by sending them a vial of saliva. It later came out that they were reselling the DNA information from their clients to pharmaceutical companies.

Regularly erase and check the cookies and other trackers on your computer. Companies use two types of trackers to save your behavior online: 1) same-site and 2) cross-site trackers. The first ones save the information about what you see, where you click, and how you behave inside one website or platform (e.g. Facebook). The second type is much more perverse because they save your internet behavior on different websites (e.g. Facebook saving your browsing data in other pages other than Facebook).

Data is a very sensitive topic. We are freely giving away more and more information about ourselves and our families without really knowing what the companies are doing with it. New technology like wearable devices and smart home devices are tracking very private parts of our lives like our health status and the types of conversations that we have with our families. Private companies usually only have profit in mind, so we cannot let them to their hands to be sensitive about the use they give to our data.

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