Data is more valuable than oil and probably dirtier

Data center with a great number of servers lining up on the floor.
Data centers like this are holding a mass amount of our data. There were 4.1 billion data breaches in the first half of 2019. Photo: Google

Data in dollars

Consumer data is the oil that makes corporate engines spin. Your information is used with one objective – to sell at you. I say at, rather than to, because this is how I’d define targeted sales which you did not consent to or sign up for.

There are rules in place, such as the UK Data Protection Act (DPA). In the EU, the data of private individuals is protected by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) protects consumers in the US and provides advice about how to keep your data safe.

And yet… I might talk with a friend about the new tyres on their car, and start immediately receiving targeted social media adverts. We receive huge volumes of emails selling us ‘stuff’ we have never bought.

Forbes reports of 4.1 billion data breaches in just the first half of this year.

How are companies obtaining our data?

Let’s consider Google, whose strength is built on the data it gathers. Sometimes this works beautifully in assisting us in finding useful information.

However, to suspect this has no other uses is a little naive. Every Google product you use – YouTube, Android, Gmail, Maps – is collating information about you. In Q1 of last year Google turned over $31.2 billion.

Google says, ‘We collect the content you create, upload, or receive from others when using our services. This includes things like email you write and receive, photos and videos you save, docs and spreadsheets you create, and comments you make on YouTube videos.’

It’s worth confirming that Google aren’t doing anything illegal (that we know of!) and the information they collect is consented to. This includes the health data Google collects, which we recently reported on.

Shoppers queuing for checkouts at a supermarket
Data captured through supermarket loyalty cards is sold to data brokers. Image: Flickr

Data – the misappropriations

Where oh where to start?

Probably the most obvious example is how Facebook paid a £500,000 fine over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I think we have all heard about this one! Around 50 million users had data collected and misappropriated through quizzing apps without their consent.

Bounty UK, a service for new and expectant mothers, was fined £400,000 at the start of 2019.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) reported that Bounty, ‘shared approximately 34.4 million records between June 2017 and April 2018 with credit reference and marketing agencies, including Acxiom, Equifax, Indicia and Sky.’

These are just a couple of examples to explain the breadth of the problem. Big, accountable companies risk facing fines if they use your information illegally.

The data collectors

The biggest problem is not big business, but is the murky world of data brokers.

Data is used in lots of ways such as fake retailers buying data to spam (and scam) consumers, and criminals buying cancelled Netflix account data.

A data broker buys and sells data. Last year US companies spent more than $19 billion buying it. This is where the lines become seriously blurred.

Some of this activity is legal, albeit questionable. Brokers collect information from online activity, public records and purchase history. They then sell this to companies to use it for their marketing. This includes data captured from supermarket loyalty cards, for example.

There is big money to be made, and it doesn’t take much for brokers to turn a blind eye to data which is not legally available. Going back to 2015 the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in the US has been cracking down on illegal broker activity.

How much is your data worth?

There are 4,000 data brokers out there. Axciom is one of the biggest brokers, and holds data for around 500 million consumers.

Investopedia reports that your Facebook data is worth on average between $0.20-$0.40. It started feeling more personal when I looked into what factors make you more ‘valuable’:

  • Being recently divorced makes your data worth 10-20% more
  • Changing your status to engaged jumps up your value to $0.30
  • Having a health condition increases your worth by 130%

This brings home why we reported about Google collecting your health data. On the surface, it looks like this is to help support your use of activity and health related apps. It isn’t. It is just another way to sell things at you, in the areas of your life where you are most vulnerable.

'Data Science for Hospital Care' NHS GDS Discovery Workshop
Personal health data is legally collected through apps. Image: Flickr

What can we do to protect ourselves?

There are a few things you can do to help make access to your data more difficult:

  1. Regularly change passwords (yeah, I know, we all need to do it more often!)
  2. Check your privacy settings on apps you use
  3. Read the privacy notices when signing up to services to make sure you know what you are consenting to
  4. Install online encryption software on your browser
  5. Avoid using public wifi
  6. Make sure anti virus software is installed on every device you use
  7. Turn off your microphone on your mobile device when you aren’t using it; I know, I know, it’s easy to get paranoid! But be aware that when you are actively using some apps, they are able to access your transactions and communications

The thing is, I think that as long as data is so valuable, there are going to be organisations who are happy to risk fines in order to get it.

One of the best things we can do is just be more aware. Read the privacy policy. Don’t blindly tick the sign-up boxes. And keep your most private information all to yourself.

What else can we do? Have you had your data stolen or been a victim of information theft? Let us know your suggestions for how to keep our information safer!

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