How Is Your Data Being Collected?
The world needs data collection. It is a fundamental part of all research, and it can lead to improvements in the health and well-being of populations. The problem arises when the process of gathering and measuring information is done without integrity, ethics, or consent. This compromises the safety and security of individuals whose data is collected.
Data collection through the internet is known as web mining. This process generates information and tracks patterns of web users at the individual and group level. This can put you at risk for identity theft if your personal data is stolen. It can also put you at risk for unwelcome influence by corporations and other entities. Therefore, it’s essential to understand how your data is being collected and the potential dangers.
What Data Is Being Collected?
The data being collected is personally identifiable information (PII). This is defined by gsa.gov to include any information “that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, either alone or when combined with other personal or identifying information that is linked or linkable to a specific individual.”
Essentially, PII refers to specific or full pieces of identifiable data such as your name, telephone number, etc. However, it also includes peripheral data such as social media pictures, reported income, or even purchases that can be linked to you.
Examples of PII include:
- Full, legal name
- Social security number
- Phone number
- Driver’s license number
- Email address
- Account numbers
- Passwords and/or personal identification numbers (PINs)
- Social media information
- Online transactions
Access to any PII data can result in risk of identity theft and other significant consequences through tracking your web presence and footprint.
How Is PII Being Collected?
Most internet users are familiar with targeted advertising. These ads pop up after and sometimes during an internet search or regular browsing. What you type in a search engine is considered information that is unregulated. This means that companies can gather and even trade these data snippets for the purposes of targeted ads, consumer influence, and to further agendas.
Most companies collect information through “cookies.” This is a means of tracking multiple websites that users visit across time. These cookies are hidden in websites and activated when an internet user clicks on the site. The cookie then keeps track of that same user’s other searches in order to collect data and track patterns.
Tracking your internet searches or usage may seem harmless. However, it becomes extremely problematic when combined with the extensive amount of PII already available online. When companies are able to pair your web browsing with any social media presence, they can create an accurate profile of you as a person. This can give them access to data about your family and friends as well.
Here are some other ways that PII is being collected:
- Seeding: This refers to the method of collecting data through online surveys. By agreeing to partake in a survey over the internet, your personal information is collected and tracked. These trackers can also collect data about anyone associated with you on the internet since they will be offered the same survey.
- Fingerprinting: Some websites use images to track your browser, operating system, and even web history. This creates a unique profile of your habits and interests that can be analyzed and used for target advertising.
- Syncing: Cookies from one website can sync with others as a means of sharing information. That means if a cookie has gathered PII and tracked your web presence, it can sync with a separate cookie to generate even more data about who you are and your internet patterns. This can happen across internet servers as well as devices. Therefore, your phone, tablet, and personal computers can all be tracked, synced, and linked to you.
These methods of collecting PII and online patterns are done without individual consent, and internet users have no privacy or authority concerning how their data is used. In addition, if the company’s accumulated data is hacked, it makes everyone involved vulnerable to identity theft through stolen PII.
Why Collection of PII Is Damaging
Access to any personal information poses risk for impersonation of another individual in order to take money from bank accounts, make credit card charges, open new accounts, receive medical treatment, and even commit other crimes. Essentially, identity thieves purposely obtain PII of others and use such information for financial gain, character abasement, legal troubles, and more. Sadly, victims of identity theft can spend years repairing damage to their credit rating, legal reputation, and economic situation at great additional financial and emotional cost.
Even if you never become a victim of identity theft, web mining of your personal data is damaging. Such data collection is invasive when it comes to basic privacy. In addition, your information can be used to impact what you buy and what information is pushed toward you in return. Target advertising can be very influential, both on a conscious and subconscious level.
Protecting Your Data
There is no foolproof or definitive way of keeping your data offline unless you have never used the internet and don’t plan to do so. However, there are ways to limit access to your PII and reduce the chances of companies collecting data and tracking your online footprint.
One way to limit access to your personally identifiable information is to deactivate and/or delete your social media. This can seem drastic. However, social media platforms are one of the primary ways that companies perform web mining, and these websites often contain more personal information than most people realize.
Overall, awareness and staying informed is the best strategy. If you understand that your personal data is being sought after at all times while you are online, this may help you avoid surveys, internet ads, suggested websites, and any other click bait that is offered.