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Harvesting Your Personal Data

Our privacy is important to us, especially in a world where our personal data is being collected and used on a larger scale than we have ever seen. Today, data is often referred to as the ‘oil of the twenty-first century.’ To boost their bottom lines, companies dip into the data streams of our lives in increasingly innovative ways.

This enormous amount of data is being harvested legally—and without our consent, without any notification, and without any compensation, as large tech companies have little to no regulations regarding their data collection practices.

Data can be collected directly or by digital tracking. This personal data can include:

  • who you are,
  • where you’ve been,
  • who you’ve been talking to, and
  • what you’re interested in.

Despite a Pew Research poll that shows 74% of Americans care deeply about protecting their data, we voluntarily give away a lot of our information every day.

In essence, we’re publicly over-sharing and publishing our data in a way that makes for some juicy, albeit somewhat frightening, news headlines:

  • Mattel Interactive admitted it had embedded phone home software called “Broadcast” in its Reader Rabbit software. Surf Monkey, which prevents children from accessing inappropriate sites, also transmits data, such as user IP addresses, back to its maker.
  • Pregnant women’s due dates are being traded by a British supermarket retailer ASDA to mystery third-party companies for marketing.
  • One in 25 Americans has voluntarily submitted their DNA to companies like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, and MyHeritage.
  • Life insurance company John Hancock announced that all policies will now give incentives for people to send the company fitness tracker and other wellness data.
  • Children’s voices recorded on the YouTube Kids app are being used by Google to promote other apps.
  • Marriott International announced that hackers had breached its database of 500 million guests, with the attackers having ‘some combination’ of passport numbers, names, addresses, and bank card details. Marriott guests consented to giving up this data, and to acknowledge having read the 5,600-word privacy policy which said that ‘no storage system is 100% secure.’

So, what can you do?
Your privacy settings are a matter of choice. There are often trade-offs—you may lose convenience or valuable social interaction if you choose to keep certain information private. But if you’d like to do more to protect your privacy, you need to understand the movement of information and make choices to control the access to your personal information.

Here are some practical steps you can take:

  • Read privacy policies. When you sign up for a service, for instance, a social media site, mobile carrier, ISP, or VoIP provider, the company will have boring pages of legalese—usually written in broad terms and offer insufficient guidance, which gives them greater leeway for how they handle the data they’ve collected on you. But you should at least be able to scan them to see if the services encrypt your data, and under what circumstances they may share your information with others.
  • Post less. Keep your social media accounts sort-of private. Social media sites and privacy are somewhat inherently at odds. After all, the point of social media is to share your life with the world. However, on the Internet, it’s best to take an approach to limit what you post because anything you put out there can be harvested by anyone, and could live online forever.
  • Use encrypted messaging. There are apps available that offer end-to-end encryption, making it almost impossible for unauthorized people to read your communications. Many are easy and free to use. Note that end-to-end encryption means both parties will need interoperable software. You can also take advantage of encrypted backup services and encrypted file-sharing sites.
  • Manage phone settings. Your smartphone’s mobile apps can scoop up a crazy amount of personal information about you with every interaction. (Just look at this example of ordering a pizza, as illustrated by The Wall Street Journal).

Go through the apps on your phone, and see if they really need access to your microphone, contacts, or location data. For example, a weather app may work just fine with your zip code, and you won’t need to grant it access to your phone’s GPS.

  • Delete tracking cookies. Clear all third-party cookies to put an end to some of this tracking. This can be done by launching your browser’s settings.
  • Privatize search. Instead of using your current browser’s private browsing mode, use a privacy-friendly search engine that doesn’t track you and keeps your searches private. Your personal information isn’t collected or shared with anybody.
  • Beware social media quizzes. These are especially popular on Facebook and seem innocent enough. But taking the quiz might mean you are giving away more about yourself than you originally thought, and may extend to your friends as well.
  • Shop local. Non-chain stores have less incentive—and capacity—to collect, parse and sell your records.

Resources: Pew Research Center, Popular Science, GlobalSign, NBC News, Forbes Media LLC, The Daily Mail