It's time to rethink how much information companies collect about you online

Companies on the internet collect a lot of data on consumers — the information we give away for free to companies like Facebook, Google and lesser known ones like Nielsen and Acxion is transformed from simple questions we type into the search bar and photos of summer vacations into location trails, metadata and other money-making data forms. According to IBM, 90 percent of the internet’s data was created in the past two months, likely aided by the rise of social networks and internet-connected devices.

Your personal information is a lot more valuable than you think. The Financial Times built a simple calculator in 2013 to see how much your data is worth and Datacoup and Daxel are hoping to disrupt the industry by allowing consumers to sell their data for a small amount of money.

How does online tracking work?

There’s lots of different options for companies to track people online, but the most popular ones are the Facebook Pixel and the Google Display Network. Facebook has repeatedly claimed that “we don’t sell ads”, but these companies do sell access to data-profiled customers — somewhat akin to swiping on Tinder until they find the right customers, without actually seeing the data behind the transaction.

Email tracking is another way companies can learn about their customers, like when and where the email was opened, on which device and from what app. A 2017 found that 40.6 percent of all emails were tracked, but ordinary people can track when and where emails are opened too, thanks to hundreds of options on the market.

The third way that companies are able to track what you do is through software developer kits that are built into mobile apps. Normally SDKs allow developers to integrate with the features they need — for example, a camera app could integrate with an API for the camera on a smartphone — but they give advertisers the chance to track things they really shouldn’t be. Plus 158 of the top 200 apps in the App Store use Google’s AdMob tracking tools, while 133 use Facebook’s

The top 10 most commonly used SDK libraries in the top iOS apps, as reported by analytics firm Mighty Signal, are largely provided by Facebook (three out of 10) and Google (four out of 10). Google’s AdMob tools, for example, helps developers show advertising and track their users, and it’s integrated into 78% of the top apps on iOS—everything from the Holy Bible to LinkedIn. Facebook’s “Core Kit,” which provides access to the social platform’s features, is integrated into 61% of top apps. The list goes on.

In the past, Apple has moved to make it more difficult to identify you by blocking access to unique identifiers and your phone number, but it’s still trivial to correlate an identity via your IP address, the name of a Wi-Fi network, or just matching together the bread crumbs of data they grab about you. Android allows even broader access to identifiers—not surprising, given that it’s built by a company that relies on advertising to make money.

The issue with sharing too much

All this information is collected with the user knowing, but a lot of the time it’s collected without them being aware of it at all. Google recently came under backlash because people didn’t realise that by using the Maps app, they were allowing the company to build a timeline of their precise location. The company got into some trouble with the public after it was discovered that it had paid to access the purchase data of two billion Mastercard holders, all to find out whether its ads translated into offline sales.

23andMe allows people to choose whether they allow it to sell their anonymised data to healthcare companies, but treats it as an “opt-out” process and requires customers to go deep into their settings to find the option. This data is all worth something — especially in the case of 23andMe, where you’re already paying the high price of $249 CAD only to have the company gouge more money out of you in the future.

How to prevent tracking

There are numerous different services and apps that help you prevent personal information from even being collected in the first place. Firefox will now block cookies and access to storage from third-party trackers, meaning it will now “effectively block the most common form of cross-site tracking,” according to the company. Or there’s Epic, which includes a free VPN to help prevent trackers from seeing your location.

DuckDuckGo is a good option for privacy-conscious internet-goers, but only really works in conjunction with a privacy-focused browser — not Google Chrome, no matter how fast and easy it is to use. You can mitigate some of the impacts of Google’s tracking with an extension that blocks tracking pixels and ads, but it’s best not to get into bed with your enemy. Although it might seem tempting to just use Incognito mode, that doesn’t actually prevent everybody from knowing your browsing history. Your ISP (the company connecting you to the webpage) can still see what websites you visit, and companies that use fingerprinting (looking at the characteristics of a browser/computer to connect a user, like their browser version number or screen resolution) can bypass Incognito mode easily.

By opting into using services like Google and Facebook, users are effectively opting out of their right to privacy in exchange for receiving these services. If complete privacy is something that you expect, it’s best to stay off the internet altogether — privacy is something that comes at a cost and, well, people aren’t interested in paying.

📸: Unsplash