At this point, data breaches is just regular news. There hasn’t been a month without a privacy mishap for a while now. According to Forbes, there were over 300 data breaches involving the theft of at least 100,000 records between 2004–2014, while the number of cyber attacks has been on an upward trend since: in 2017, for instance, there were 1,579 data breaches reported in the US alone. And these are just the ones that were made public.
Strangely enough, it feels like most of us have almost stopped caring. If you keep hearing about something for long enough, it simply loses its fear factor. You probably know that the data privacy problem is there, but it seems pretty impersonated. Right?
Take the term ‘Big Data’, for instance. It sounds techy, distant and (maybe) a tiny bit worrying. However, when you dive deeper you learn that, for instance, Facebook actively collects metadata for your photos — data that describes where and when you’ve taken them and who are on it. Things get a whole lot more real with this information.
Awareness of the problem and the potential solutions is the first step to making a difference. In this article, we are taking a deep dive into the issue and reviewing the tech on a mission to solve it.
So, what kind of info the Big Tech might have on you, why they’re collecting it in the first place — and, more importantly, what can you do to protect yourself? Let’s take a look.
There aren’t many people in the world who read privacy policies. And even if they do, it literally takes hundreds of hours to read them. Consequently, not that many of us realize that by ticking the “agree” box, we’re voluntarily signing away a lot of our data.
Thanks to the websites like TruePeopleSearch, we can now see what exactly is being collected by which platforms as part of their privacy policies.
That’s a disturbing amount of personal information that many of us wouldn’t be too happy to share. For most of the apps/services, we’re signing away not just our names and email addresses, but also our search and purchase histories, likes, personal preferences, and much more.
This BBC research has found out some of the most bizarre and disturbing types of data that we voluntarily (or sometimes unknowingly) share with corporations.
Below are some of the most common examples, along with advice on how to avoid falling prey to the Big Tech.
Help your data stay private
1. Cover your webcam
Amazon and Microsoft have been confirmed to collect facial recognition data, TikTok is currently facing a lawsuit for “storing users’ facial geometry without their knowledge”. And Facebook has been the first big whale to have settled a facial recognition lawsuit for as much as $550 million.
When using a laptop, make sure to put some duct tape over your webcam — it’s very easy and there’s a reason why Mark Zuckerberg does it. Covering your phone camera is trickier, though, and might require ordering a cover slider.
2. Remember that the content of your DMs and emails might not be entirely private
That’s probably because LinkedIn uses what it calls “automatic scanning technology on messages” in order to protect you “from malicious sites or spam, and to suggest automatic replies”.
Seemingly, Twitter stores and processes your DMs using data on “whom you have communicated with and when (but not the content of those communications) to better understand the use of our services, to protect the safety and integrity of our platform.”
Moreover, Google used to allow app developers to scan through their users Gmail inboxes in the past — so your email might not be entirely private, either.
To prevent those companies from scanning through your emails and DMs, consider using more privacy-friendly products.
3. Use VPN to prevent your phone from being tracked
If you have a cellphone, you’re trackable, and your location data is a precious resource for targeted advertising. Over the past few years, Facebook has been reported to collect your location data through IP addresses, even if you’ve denied access to your phone GPS data. They also don’t delete your search history from their servers, even if you’ve asked them to.
To get really uncomfortable, check out this massive and detailed investigation by the New York Times — it’s main outtake is that “our privacy is only as secure as the least secure app on our device”.
Tracking is tough to avoid: but being conscious about it helps. At least, you can stop sharing your location with apps, and use privacy-oriented VPN services for browsing. Note that unless you use a distributed VPN provider, you are simply replacing the problem.
4. Block spy pixels in your emails
What emails do you open? When and where do you read them? What device are you using? By simply including a spy tracker into an email they send you, many companies can learn all this information about you, and more.
You can stop this violation of your privacy by using spy pixel blockers and encrypted email apps such as ProtonMail.
If you’re on the other side of the equation, as a company you can use privacy-oriented alternatives to Google Analytics that don’t track or collect any personal data (Plausible).
Why the Big Tech is after your data
When you read about all of this, it’s easy to go into a full-on panic mode, imagining Zuckerberg and Bezos sitting over your shopping basket or holiday photos, or twitching every time a Google Ad conveniently suggests you to buy exactly the thing that you discussed with your friend over Zoom the other day.
The reality is somewhat more pragmatic: as the Big Tech services are free to use, they usually treat your data as a commodity. They can pass it on to third parties (remember Cambridge Analytica?), or update their services based on what they see users do online.
So yes, they are using this information to improve the customer experience by monitoring trends and activities, and it may actually be used to develop new services or improve the well-being of entire communities.
But for us as individuals the value of all this tracking is less tangible, whereas the risks of data sharing seem to be far too overwhelming to believe in the greater good behind this cracking façade.
What can you do about your data being misused?
So will our data ever get safer? The recent GDPR acts, Californian Consumer Privacy Act and Congress hearings should make us a bit hopeful that the rights and wrongs of using consumer data will be established on an international level.
But until it becomes closely regulated, stay vigilant. Consider switching to the data privacy-focused alternatives to the apps you use on a daily basis:
- Memri — data-conscious digital assistant and browser with real-time privacy inspection
- DuckDuckGo, Brave — privacy-oriented browsers
- ProtonMail — encrypted email service
- Plausible.io — privacy-friendly website analytics tool