Perhaps the most worrying consequence from the recent Facebook data harvest and subsequent use from data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica is that many people feel unsurprised at the pervasive techniques being employed. Rather than consternation, this exposé was met with a resounding shrug from the general population. As internet users, we’ve become accustomed to our every move being tracked, processed and analysed for advertising; however, this ubiquitous marketing practice has rarely been used for political ends.  

According to reports, Cambridge Analytica may have influenced the UK’s European Union referendum, the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States of America (USA), and the 2015 Presidential Election in Nigeria. The company supposedly exploited a data scraping technique that granted a Facebook app access to personal data from users who took a personality survey along with all the friends in their network. A former employee at Cambridge Analytica explained in a Channel Four documentary that one completed personality survey returned, on average, around 300 profiles’ worth of info. The information was then used to “psychologically profile people and deliver pro-Trump material to them [for the US Presidential Election campaign].” 

Giving Away Your Digital Data: A Few Clicks Is All It Takes 

With a limited set of information, data analysts can guess some rather intricate aspects of your life. The more information you give away, the easier you will become to target and potentially influence. In a bid to take back control of our digital selves, today we scour the web in search of tips to help you, the everyday internet user, protect your personal information online. 

Permissions 

App permissions, be they on Facebook or your smartphone, are worth paying attention to. There is a great resource for understanding the potential ramifications of app permissions on an Android phone here. Does any app legitimately need access to the phone’s dialer to make a call? Rarely, yet some apps on your smartphone will ask for such. Map applications are possibly an exemption as it’s a convenient alternative to copying and pasting a number to call a business. The same can be said for GPS location permissions; some applications need this to work effectively (maps once again, but only while the app is being used) but not all require this to function. If they ask for GPS permissions, they could be looking to gain data insights to sell on to third parties.   

Likewise on Facebook, apps, like the Cambridge Analytica personality quiz, can ask for quite sweeping permissions to include mining details that users perhaps overlooked when installing. Be aware that many of these apps are created with the sole purpose of collecting personal data that you have no control over once it is collected. Were users of the Cambridge Analytica personality quiz aware that they were providing information that would allegedly be used for a pro-Trump election campaign? If you don’t use an installed app, why not delete it? And be sure to check the permissions of those you do use to make sure you’re happy with what information is being collected.    

Also, the option to “login using Facebook” that some companies employ (Channel 4’s online catch-up service is one example) is another data mining technique. You’re potentially giving that company access to personal information; what they do with that info is anyone’s guess. This short video explains how you can avoid online tracking and data mining via your Facebook settings.  

Google – Data Overlords 

Google is something of a strange case in that it appears more secure, yet simultaneously more terrifying. Google does not sell personal data to third parties, but boy does it track. It uses its data to offer companies a tailored service to make sure their product is seen by the ‘right’ people – aka those who are susceptible (or in some cases, generally in need of) whatever is being sold. Being so ubiquitous, Google manages to get hold of a lot of data; until recently, the tech giant permitted themselves to scan personal email accounts to pull data for targeted ads. And if you’re a Google Drive user, you might be concerned at one line from the company’s terms of service: “Our automated systems analyse your content to provide you personally relevant product features.”  

In short, Google has positioned itself as the gatekeeper of global personal information. As owners of tools like the Android operating system and the G-Drive word processor etc. Google has gained significant power over users and can dictate what permissions they need to mine valuable data. They produce services that are undeniably useful (Google Drive). But aren’t our habits and personal information worth more than a convenient word processor and 15 gigabytes of free cloud storage? If you were worried about Facebook, logically, you may be panicking about Google right about now. 

How to Avoid Online Tracking 

Avoiding tracking can seem like a difficult task. However, other service providers can offer a more privacy-friendly experience. Mozilla Firefox is a web browser that can be tweaked with add-ons to offer near water-tight levels of privacy. Additionally, there’s trusty DuckDuckGo, the search engine that doesn’t “collect or share any of your personal information.” As for smartphone privacy, it’s almost non-existent. Imagine having a tracking device in your pocket all day, every day; that’s essentially most smartphones on the market (although iPhones can be tamed). Tracking and data mining is built into most mobile operating systems and apps; however, there is an alternative (with added retro flair). The Blackberry KEYone continues the company’s history of promoting security and privacy features by suppressing Android’s natural inclinations to track.  

For PC users, Microsoft 10 can be tuned for a less creepy experience. There’s a great guide to “reclaiming your privacy in Windows 10” here. For Mac users, tracking on an individual level is apparently not in their interest according to a report from Wired. Instead, the company uses large datasets to gain insights into groups with the aim of improving their products and services. For those looking for extra levels of protection while using a computer or laptop, this post on Linux distros created for privacy may be worth a look.  

With that, we conclude our guide; although the job is far from complete. The resources of tech giants make understanding how we’re being tracking tracked and mined for digital data increasingly difficult; however, we hope this guide has given you some insights on what to look out for online. Why not go further down the rabbit hole to see if there are any tips we missed? And feel free to give the UKCBC community a hand by posting your tips/solutions below.  

Interested in becoming a pioneer of online privacy and security? An HND in Computing could be the perfect qualification to give you the platform necessary for success in the sector. Contact a UKCBC course advisor today to discuss where an HND in Computing can take you.    

 

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