Each time we share a meme with friends, ask Google a silly question, or tag our favourite restaurant in a mouth-watering foodie pic on social media, our behaviour is being recorded and shared by companies all over the world.
You might not have given it much thought. But the hard truth is that each day, the actions that you take across the web, help build a digital profile. From your favourite chocolate bar to the age of your children, online businesses are hoovering up as much of your digital data as they possibly can. But is it all bad, or does it benefit us? We explore how companies gather this information, and what exactly do they do with it?
What information is available about me?
Thanks to the digital transformation of the late 1990’s, collecting our online data has become the norm for most businesses. Computers are now able to identify your voice through your microphone, see your location through GPS tracking, analyse your browsing history, track every financial transaction you’ve ever made, and even store your biometrics, so you can unlock your smartphone with just a glance. From your demographics to your dating history, most companies are adept at reeling in your data from a plethora of locations. Whilst relatively vague information such as your age, geography, occupation, etc. are widely collected and shared as an anonymous group demographic, there are more stringent regulations in place surrounding the sharing of personal information that could be used to identify you, such as your full name, and date of birth.
How is my data collected?
Through the ages, information has long been one of the world’s most valuable resources. It currently powers individuals, the most profitable organisations around the globe, and even entire governments. But when measured side-by-side with other valuable resources, there is one glaringly obvious difference…we give it away for free. That’s right. One of the planet’s most in-demand resources, free of charge. And businesses of every size are mining it daily. Each click, scroll, like is recorded to help condense the internet, and predict what content you’d like to see more of.
One of the most common ways to gather your data is via a website. Most people don’t think twice about clicking the ‘Allow All’ button when that pesky pop-up mentions something about cookies, but in-fact, it’s a request to track your every movement on the website you’re on, such as which buttons you click, the videos you watch, and how long you spend on a page can all be valuable information. But what is a cookie? Well, whenever you visit a website, it stores a small piece of data inside your computer… a cookie. This cookie is designed to remember information about you to remind the website who you are and what your preferences or online habits are. All of which doesn’t stop at just websites, your data is available on almost every digital platform you use, from email tracking, social media, apps, or there is always the option to buy it.
How is my data used?
Now that you’ve peeked behind the curtain, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little concerned, and left wondering what exactly these businesses can do with your information. Not to worry, MacGregor Black has broken down the main ways your data is being used.
Data is vital when it comes to helping companies gain clarity about their target audience. The topics you search for, the websites you visit, the links you like, and even the location you’re in whilst you do all the above are all valuable pieces of data. This information is what allows marketeers to paint a picture of who you are, how you like to spend your time online and what you enjoy buying, browsing, and sharing. The result? Personalised adverts, all of which are showcasing products and services that you are most likely to want or need. For example, after a quick search on a site such as Amazon or eBay, you might be followed by the same products advertised across other digital accounts. You’re not crazy, and it’s no coincidence, its simply companies taking note of a particular product that you’ve shown interest in, and ‘re-targeting’ you, in the hope you’ll come back to buy it. Another incentive for marketeers to store your data is the increased ability to predict your behaviour. For example, something as simple as a discount code emailed to customers on their birthday has a 481% higher transaction rate, and a staggering 342% higher revenue than the average promotional email campaign, according to Experian.Therefore, something as simple as knowing a date you’ll be celebrating, or perhaps having a little more cash lying around, can be an incredibly effective tool for marketers.
Whether it be social scientists, marketeers, or even governments, the data you provide is constantly being studied and researched, even as we speak. As we touched upon, marketeers would use this data to develop an understanding about what makes you tick, and to better advertise their products and services to you. However, a social scientists would use your data to gather and research trends, allowing them to determine unbiased insights for studies. Or for those who remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal… possibly even influence our political views. After all, what better way to assess the feelings of a group of people, than to track their digital likes, dislikes, comments, and criticisms on a mass scale. But it’s not all doom and gloom, data can, and is also being used to start movements and initiate positive change. The volunteering of information has not only allowed us to track societal issues, for example, the gender pay gap, but also implement permanent action to tackle wrongdoing.
Perhaps you’re looking to insure your shiny new car, put a deposit down on your dream home, or take out a loan to launch a brilliant new business idea you have. What they all have in common, is the need for you to hand over your personal data. Like marketeers, insurers, mortgage providers, and bankers will gather this data and use it to paint a picture of your character, which in turn, allows them to better understand the risk they take when it comes to lending you huge sums of money. With thanks to additional regulations surrounding these sectors, sensitive data such as your prescription history, credit history, criminal records, professional licenses, health records and financial information are kept safely under lock and key and is only shared with the aforementioned services with your permission.
With the potential power that information holds, it’s no wonder that when it’s collected, it’s stored. By keeping historical data, it allows for the progress to be tracked, for example social scientists can monitor attitudes, salaries, migration, and equality over time. With marketers using past data to monitor increases and decreases in demand. However, it can also bring with it the potential for misuse, in the form of a poorly secured websites and unencrypted data. The result of this? Our data can be left sitting in a vulnerable position. With certain sensitive information, it’s possible to open accounts in your name, take out loans, intercept your tax refunds, open utility accounts, and even fly with your airmiles. But it isn’t all bad. Thanks to updated legislation, we all have the right to know what information is being stored about us, as well as instruct its permanent deletion. However, there can be no guarantee that your data hasn’t already been sold and stored elsewhere.
With the value of information skyrocketing, the opportunity to purchase your behavior profile is more common than you might think. In fact, there are companies out there with the sole purpose of mining and selling online data. Like any market, the value of this data fluctuates based on supply and demand. For example, as there are currently more women than men in our population, therefore a male’s data is often sold at a slightly higher price. The same can be said across a range of different demographics, with data on 18–24-year-olds often carrying the highest price tag, according to a study conducted in 2020 by MacKeeper and YouGov.
As we willingly introduce more technology into our lives, thus increasing the information we share, the greater the need becomes to consider who we trust to use it responsibly. After all, it not only has the potential to better society, our online experiences and how we spend our time and money, it can also be used to influence our political opinions, threaten our personal security, and invade our privacy. With pro’s and con’s evident on either side of the data mining debate, and a constant race between ever evolving regulations and technology, the responsibility ultimately lies with us.