The secret world of data
Handing over your email address at the till seems harmless enough, but behind that simple transaction lies an alarming tracking network of data collection and use. We look at the hidden industry that feeds on consumer data.
“Information is being shared completely haphazardly and there’s no accountability at any stage”
It’s a simple enough question: Do you want a digital or paper receipt? But behind that question is a global industry of tracking and data collection, companies you’ve never heard of buying and selling that data, sending every detail of your online and offline behaviour around the world to anyone willing to pay for it. Once that data is out there you have no control over who sees it and how they use it.
It may not seem like you’re giving much away with you email address. But with that small piece of identification, companies have the key to unlock thousands of pieces of data that not only opens up your whole life to people and businesses whose entire job is to sell you stuff, but potentially to people with criminal intent, focused on using your data to target you and your contacts for fraud, hacking, identity theft and a host of virus attacks.
The programmatic problem
Right now, there is little or no regulation over data collection and use. GDPR was brought in to give people some control over their online information and who gets to see it, but despite a few high profile fines for companies failing to protect their customers’ data, it’s made little difference to the tracking of consumers online.
Indeed, a recent survey by eMarketer has found that 67% of UK brands have increased their spending on programmatic – the system that collects your data and ensures ads for products you’ve looked at follow you around the internet – post-GDPR.
Brands who invest heavily in programmatic advertising and online data will hold a staggering amount of information about you, much of it updated in real time as you browse various stores online. What you’ve looked at, what you’ve bought, when you bought it, how much you paid, how long it took from first look to purchase, how you paid, is all logged and immediately available for companies to assess and use.
From this information, companies will build a ‘personality’ for you, an emotional profile that details what kind of shopper you are – careful, impulsive, hesitant, decisive – and tailor their marketing accordingly.
Of course, you may not mind targeted adverts. After all, the more personalised the ads you see online, the more relevant they may be to you. But online adverts are the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to how your data can be used. With the increase in connected devices, the amount other people know about you will increase. Smart watches, smart TVs, voice assistants, connected cars, even smart plugs hold an alarming amount of data about your daily habits and behaviour.
Then, of course, there’s your smartphone. Not only will the phone itself be constantly giving away your location, almost all of its apps will have access to your personal details, including a wide variety of health information such as your heart rate, physical fitness and sleep patterns. All this information is out there to be openly traded on the global data market.
“There are just more streams of data out there to be aggregated and tied to
profiles and sold,” says Bennett Cyphers, a technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Information is being shared completely haphazardly and there’s no accountability at any stage.”
So what can you do?
The key thing is to be very careful about the information you give to people and what permissions you give them – don’t hand over your data unless you have to. If a website asks for your details then only give the basic information, if they ask if they can upload your contact book then say no, if you make a sensitive purchase such as medication then don’t use a loyalty card.
And the most important of all: don’t give retailers your email address just because they ask. They may talk about digital receipts being easier for the customer and (quite wrongly) being better for the environment, but collecting your email address is the first small step in a very long journey of data collection and use. Exercise your right to own your own information and ask for a paper receipt instead.