Who has access to your personal data and what do they do with that information? Do you ever go through the terms and conditions when using an app or signing up for a product or service? Are you giving away your data too easily? And what are the dangers?
These are the questions I have begun to ask myself as a consumer. You see, companies use our personal data to market and sell us products online; money is being made from what we see and do online. They do this through targeted advertising.
Have you ever clicked on a link or googled a camera, for example, then all of a sudden on your social media feed and on the different websites you go to, an ad about a camera pops up? Scary, isn’t it?
Let’s take the social media giant Facebook. It has more than 2.41 billion users worldwide and their biggest resource is ... our data.
With every comment, click, like, share, Facebook is collecting data and combining that information to target specific ads to sell us products and gradually sway our thinking. Worldwide there is a growing awareness of the dangers around privacy and data, but South Africa seems to be left behind.
More and more voices are coming to the fore to alert the public about data manipulation and misuse.
Facebook agreed to settle a privacy complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission for $5 billion (R76.7 billion) last month. To put that into context, last year alone, Facebook’s profit topped $22 billion.
If you are not on Facebook, remember that it also owns WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger, but they are not limited to these social networks to collect data.
Scott Galloway, a New York University business professor, says Facebook’s owner Mark Zuckerberg is “the most dangerous person in the world” because, by 2020, if Zuckerberg gets his way, all of the above-mentioned social networks will be integrated in terms of technical infrastructure!
Targeted advertising is not all bad – it has always been meant to enhance the shopping experience of customers. For example, if you go to a website but, for whatever reason, you do not complete the purchase, when you go back to the website, you don’t have to start the process from scratch, you simply continue where you left off and you can even add new merchandise to your cart.
However, it is what is in those terms and conditions we never read that much is left to be desired. Most merchants or websites ask you to accept their cookies but what you don’t realise is that even third parties can get access to your information once you accept them (see sidebar).
So, how do you protect yourself and your data when most apps and websites require you to accept their cookies and terms and conditions before you can have the full function of their product or service?
WHAT IS A COOKIE?
An HTTP cookie, (also called web cookie, internet cookie, browser cookie or, simply, cookie) is a small amount of data sent from a website and stored on the user’s computer by the user’s web browser while the user is browsing.
Cookies were designed to be a reliable mechanism for websites to remember stateful information (such as items added in the shopping cart in an online store) or to record the user’s browsing activity (including clicking particular buttons, logging in or recording which pages were visited in the past).
They can also be used to remember arbitrary pieces of information that the user previously entered into form fields such as names, addresses, passwords and credit card numbers.
With hackers and marketers becoming smarter than ever, keeping your passwords, and financial and other personal information safe and protected from outside intruders is increasingly important for consumers.
Unfortunately governments are still trying to find a way to regulate data privacy and protection. Here in South Africa, we have the Protection of Personal Information Act, a law that is meant to protect consumer data, but is yet to come into effect.
According to business software firm WorkPool, the purpose of the act is to ensure institutions conduct themselves in a responsible manner when collecting, processing, storing and sharing another entity’s personal information, by holding them accountable should they abuse or compromise your information in any way.
It is therefore important for you as the consumer to try as much as you can to protect your own data if you don’t want this valuable information to be misused.
There are practical steps you can take to do so:
- Don’t log in to all the free Wi-Fi;
- Back up your data;
- Create strong passwords and change them regularly;
- Only use websites that are credible and, if you can, opt out of the cookies;
- Turn off your computer after using it;
- Don’t store your passwords with your laptop or cellphone;
- Be aware of privacy settings. Always choose the option with the least amount of data-sharing;
- Don’t click on suspicious links; and
- Turn off your Bluetooth when you are not using it.
If your personal data land up in the wrong hands, it could lead to financial loss in the form of identity theft. TransUnion, the largest credit bureau in South Africa, says identity theft can go undetected for months, even years, while victims have enormous debts run up in their name. That is why it is prudent to look at your credit report at least once a year, even when you are not in debt.
It’s a new world order – only the paranoid will survive!