There are many things you need to watch out for when you’re online today. From scam e-mails to people phishing for your credit card details there are pitfalls when you’re browsing that thankfully have been well publicized and we are more and more aware of. But there are other things to be aware of that may affect you without even realize. Big data is watching, and believe me there’s a huge amount that they know about you.
What is big data? Well its one of those terms that’s used to describe the amount of information that the big tech companies have collected about you as well as the idea that data is the new hot commodity. Big data is, as the term suggests is huge, and what most people don’t realize is that practically everywhere you go online and whatever you do you are leaving a digital foot print which is being cataloged and stored to create a profile of your habits, spending patterns and search history.
How are they allowed to do this you ask? We’ll believe it or not, you’ve already given them permission. Confused yet? Well think about it this way; you’ve probably signed up for several free services online such as Gmail or Facebook, thinking that they are really useful services and free to boot. Well if you’ve never wondered how they supply these products without charging you it’s because when you absent-mindedly agreed to the terms and conditions when you signed up, you agreed to let them gather information about you which they are free to sell and use to target you with adverts and other ways of making money.
It’s nothing new, and lets face it, most people don’t bother reading the T’s and C’s when they sign up for services because we assume its pretty standard. Truth is these companies spend millions drafting and wording these agreements in such a way that even if you do take the time to read them the chances are you’ll struggle to make much sense of most of the terms unless you have a degree in company law and are familiar with the finer points of data protection. What’s really interesting though is how much information these companies can gather about you.
Let’s look at adverts to start with. You’ve probably had the experience where you’ve done a google search for something and then later that day spotted similar ads on other websites for the exact product you we’re searching about. This is by design and not by accident. As you do a Google search the information is logged in their servers and their advertising services track the websites you go to and when you land on a page that displays adverts the website can very quickly send Google your details and the site can then serve you with tailored ads specific to you.
Targeted adverts are a big business, and, unlike television or print, the ads can dynamically change to suit each and every person who arrives on the website. As long as the website is using a Google Adsense service that site is sending info to Google and is learning more and more about you. But it’s not just Google themselves. By accepting the terms and using their free services you’ve also allowed them to share this information with other providers and companies who can then in turn target you with their own products.
You might be thinking to yourself that you’re not too bothered by this as it makes sense that if you search for something you might want to see adverts related to that search, but unfortunately it doesn’t end there. If you believe that your e-mail is safe think again. By using the Gmail service, Google can actually mine this content for more useful information about you. The systems are all automated so it’s not like someone is reading your mail, but their computers are looking for key words and any data that it can use to create a profile about you.
They can even plug into other services. If these systems spot messages from a competitors social networking service you’ll be prompted to ‘connect’ that network to your account. This, again if you read the terms and conditions, allows them to then get access to the content and data from that service too. Before long companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook can gather a vast amount of data about you and they will profit from this. If this seems a bit invasive that’s because it is. The problem is that you’ve effectively granted them permission to do this.
So what’s the worst case scenario? We’ll there are some isolated cases that have highlighted that this collection of information can be harmful. A case in the US a few years ago which sounds almost too funny to be true is a good example. A police team was called to the house of a young couple and the man arrested and questioned about plotting to kill his partner. This occurred because of his search history which included things like ‘how do I dispose of a body’. Through a sequence of automated events and human interference the police were dispatched. Only, one thing wasn’t factored in. This man was a staff writer for a hit crime show and his searches were for research for his job.
While there is an argument to be made that big data could help profile and prevent crime in theory, the intuitive extra step to check what his job was, in this case, was missed and it was a crucial piece of information.
More and more there is a movement of people who want to be ‘forgotten’ online. In other words they are challenging the legality of this data collection and pushing for big tech companies to delete this content so that their preference are not tracked and logged, but they are facing a massive challenge going against these tech giants. As recently as this week a case in the UK has come to light about the possibility that iPhone users had information gathered about their location even without their permission, but Google has faced cases like these before and has the money and power to either settle or win and this is unlikely to change their data gathering procedures.
I’ve only scratched the surface on where this could potentially lead to and the level of information these companies have collected on you, so I’d highly recommend watching the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply which is currently on Netflix and may really terrify you as to how much they know. Sure we enjoy the free services, the email, storage and social networking, but don’t be fooled, you are paying a price for them and that price is your data.