Your Data — Their Profit: How Your Online Data is Being Used

Fun Fact: In 1663, John Graunt ran one of the first substantial data collection projects in an effort to track the behavior of the black plague. In doing so, he founded the first public health records and established a global place for statistical analysis.

Sure, data was around long before then. However, this was one of the first times in history that we saw a larger need to gather information to improve or sustain life.

Nowadays, the use of consumer data has grown into a $231.43 billion dollar industry, with hefty forecasted growth over the next six years. And the uses for this data have skewed towards the need for profit over the need to improve quality of life.

Every time we log in, surf the internet, download an app, use social media, participate in medical experiments, use DNA kits, or give our email address or phone number at a store, we’re contributing to a gargantuan global data pool.

Unfortunately, far too many of us take our daily data transactions for granted. We don’t always stop to ask the question, “What’s being done with all of this info?”

First, it goes through the data brokers.

“Data Brokers” is a broad term used to describe any person, company, or entity that gathers consumer information from public and private databases with the intent of selling or licensing it to third parties.

This is really the heart of the data for profit marketplace. From here, information can be purchased, listed, used, or hoarded, based on the intentions of the recipients.

If the whole thing sounds difficult to follow and undefined, that’s because it is. The point is, that after data is collected, it’s then passed, sold, or licensed to be used (and sometimes abused) in a variety of ways.

One of the most common of these is for use in marketing.

Marketers rely on data for pretty much everything.

Companies will often purchase data in the hopes of hoarding and analyzing it to provide them with another competitive advantage. They use it to understand their audience, forecast

outcomes, and gain a greater understanding of the marketplace where they operate. This is only one method of transforming data into marketing insights though.

Many of us have heard the saying, “If you’re unsure of what the product is, you are the product.” This holds true for social media sites, large search engines, and organizations that all sell ad space as their primary source of funding. Your personal info is big business.

Companies use different ad servers to target you based on your interests or needs. These ad servers can be products of massive search engines (rhymes with schmoogle) and social media sites, or even variations of private software designed specifically for a webpage or app.

Cookies as well as machine learning driven analytics systems are used to track your online activity. The more you use these search engines, visit affiliated sites, use certain apps, or interact on social media, the more they are able to begin predicting your behavior, allowing for smarter ad targeting.

Ever had the creepy feeling that Google or Bing were listening in on your conversations because of the supernatural way they seem to anticipate your needs? It’s because they’ve gotten enough data from you — and from those in close proximity to your location — to accurately predict your preferences, shopping needs, and interests. Still creepy.

Congrats! Here are a few (thousand) robocalls you never wanted.

There are several ways that your phone number can land in the hands of telemarketers or on a robocall list. The first of these involves data brokers selling this info to the highest bidders.

Every time you’re asked to add your phone number to a registration form, new account sign up, password recovery prompt, or anywhere online, you could be unwittingly opening yourself up to unwanted phone solicitation.

Oftentimes, the permission to use your number for sales calls is hidden in the fine print on user agreements. You check a box, and the next thing you know, you’re hearing about your car warranty… again.

While the solution to this seems clear (just don’t provide your real number), there are times when websites will ask you to verify your identity using your number, or will refuse to allow you access to something if you try and avoid it.

In addition to traditional data brokers, credit reports, and online “phone books”, automatic number identifiers (ANIs) are sometimes used when you dial out to an 800 or 888 number. These systems confirm that your number is associated with your account, and then store that number for later use in sales, or to sell to external data brokers.

Ultimately, no matter how they get it, your phone number is used for marketing purposes, payment reminders, debt collections, and sometimes just in outright scams.

Banks, colleges, mortgage companies, car salespeople, and even vacation companies are some of the worst culprits when it comes to telemarketing. Unfortunately, this is a problem that doesn’t have an easy solution (we’re working on it).

The best way to protect yourself is to avoid sharing your number as much as possible, stress to companies that they do not have your permission to share it, and try to read the fine print before you agree to anything online,

You may be contributing to academia.

When students are attempting to publish to any academic journal or newsource, they are required to provide data backing up their claims or theories. The more data, the better. So, instead of polling the masses using consensual methods, some academics will use information gained from data brokers in their studies.

While this doesn’t seem quite as nefarious as some of the other ways that your data is being used, it’s still something that you should be aware of before providing sensitive information on the web.

You may become part of a case study on the number of people with a specific medical issue, or the subject of a national study on what demographics are currently searching for homes online. Knowing what can happen with the info you share online (and in person) can help you make informed decisions.

DNA tests are fun, but what’s the real cost?

Ever taken a commercial DNA test to find out about your ancestry, or to test for the likelihood of a future medical condition? If the answer is “yes,” then you may have contributed to a collective pool of test results gathered from more than 100-million people.

Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe can provide us with fascinating insight into who we are. However, they also provide this data in mass amounts to healthcare researchers, marketing firms, pharmaceutical companies, and even weight loss coaches.

As long as the price is right, a company can capitalize on your genetic information. Many users don’t understand that because this isn’t being collected in a medical setting, their samples aren’t protected by privacy laws like HIPAA, or other statutes.

While the data being sold is done so anonymously, it’s still shocking to many participants who didn’t realize that they were also signing up to contribute to drug studies, targeted marketing campaigns, or other various projects.

Again, the key is to read the fine print, and decide whether it’s a risk you’re willing to take in exchange for using these products. Under some circumstances, you can petition to have your info removed from their databases, but once it’s sold, there’s no going back.

And of course, illegal data sales are a thing.

Hackers don’t always have to rely on their tech skills to gain access to your private information. Many can also elect to purchase consumer data directly from unscrupulous data brokers. In addition to these methods, they can also pay for access to the online “people search” sites that store and sell your info out in the open.

This data can then be used in email scams, telemarketing scams, and even to target your physical location.

The best defense is a good offense. Don’t wait for the problem to happen. Start taking proactive measures by protecting your data via secure browsers, cloaked accounts (if you have access), and through other means of masking your actual contact information.

Keep learning about privacy and the steps you can take to protect yourself with Cloaked!

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