Leaks Everywhere: How Much of Your Data Is Being Used by Third Parties?

Whether you know it or not, unless you are using a VPN, almost every action you take online is recorded digitally. Facebook, Yahoo, CNN, YouTube and Amazon — to name a few — are all using algorithms to track their users’ online behavior. These companies then use this data themselves, or sell it on to third parties like advertising agencies.

Thanks to the European Union Regulation (EU)2016/679, commonly known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), as of May 2018, companies will be legally obliged to obtain explicit consent from consumers in order to use their data, and will face hefty fines if they are found to be illegally storing or sharing information. However, as it currently stands, most people are totally unaware of the amount of data that is being compiled about them on a day-to-day basis.

And it’s not just the articles you read on the news, nor the items you look at on e-commerce sites which are being recorded. With the internet of things (IoT) playing an increasingly significant role in our cars, homes, hospitals, even fridges, the average person is sharing a lot more data than they might think. So, in what different ways are we sharing data, without even realizing it?

Social

In our modern world, it can be hard to avoid the lure of social media. While many of us may keep our profiles set to “private”, whether we know it or not, almost all of our data is open to use by social media platforms. If you take a close look at the terms of conditions of most leading social platforms, they are quite open about the fact that they can use the lion’s share of your behavioral data.

One of the biggest data drains is, believe it or not, Facebook quizzes. Taking a quiz to find out what ice cream flavor you are might sound like an amusing way to pass time, but in reality you are explaining to third parties exactly what type of person you are, and in turn, what type of consumer you are. This data is very valuable to marketing companies. Cambridge Analytica, for instance, is a data analytics firm which has built psychological profiles of 230 million adult Americans, and worked for the Trump campaign during the general election and for the Leave campaign during Brexit. These types of quizzes are also used by hackers to gain important information from Facebook users which offers clues as to their passwords.

Wearables

With key players like Google and Levi teaming up to make wearable tech cool, we are likely to see more technology integrated into our clothes and accessories in the near future. Though very exciting as a concept, it does present another form of intrusive data gathering.

While some producers of wearables such as Louis Vuitton only share data with approval from the user and destroy user data every three month, the same cannot be said for other wearable brands like Fitbit. In 2011, Fitbit users found this out the hard way when some users discovered their sexual activity appeared in Google search results.

Wearable technology is becoming increasingly common and has even stepped into the bedroom, with options for sex wearables which can track everything from one’s thrust speed to STD status. Despite the manufacturer of the “smart condom” claiming that all information is collected anonymously, sharing data on such a personal area of our lives may be a “turnoff” for many.

Connected devices at home

Once considered a haven from the outside world, our modern homes are now an oasis for data collection, allowing everything from your TV to your fridge to record and share your daily habits.

iRobot, a company which produces robot cleaners, recently found itself in the spotlight, after the company admitted to using its popular cleaning robots to map out users’ homes. Though the company denies selling information, its theoretical ability to do so highlights the invasiveness of modern technology in our homes.

Recent court cases have brought to light the invasive nature of home devices such as Alexa. In December of last year, authorities subpoenaed Amazon for potential information collected by one of its devices which had been present during an alleged homicide case. At first Amazon opposed the request, citing First Amendment protections, but allowed it when the suspect agreed to provide the information to the police.

Though the case avoided a forceful head-to-head conflict between Amazon and authorities, it does pose the very worrying question as to how much data these devices are collecting, especially if it could be considered evidence. Recently, a 9-year-old was caught and will potentially face charges after Alexa recorded his voice during a break-in. These devices hold plenty of potential to facilitate our lives at home, but as we turn a blind eye to their data tracking potential, we might be giving away incredibly personal information without knowing it.

Smart devices

Smart devices can be excellent tools helping users become more aware of their health and daily routines. However, like many internet-connected devices, this new simplicity might come at the cost of your data. While smart utensils may help users keep an eye on their calorie intake, they are also dramatically increasing the amount of data users are sharing.

Vessyl is a 13-ounce cup that can recognize any beverage you fill it with, display its nutritional content, and sync all your drinking habits to your smartphone. Though the company  it is “not in the business of selling your information”, it does go on to say that there are “certain circumstances in which we may share your Personal Data with certain third parties without further notice to you.”

Moreover, with the release of other products such as smart plates, we can expect to see more companies claiming a clearer insight into our habits. As IoT sensors become smaller and more affordable, we are likely to see even more household items becoming “connected devices”, from our toothbrushes to our toilets. Gartner forecasts that 8.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide in 2017, up 31 percent from 2016.

Cars

While the living room has traditionally been the most connected room in our houses, it seems that data is soon going to extend to our garages too. Experts predict that internet-connected cars will send 25 gigabytes of data to the cloud every hour, potentially giving companies the ability to track cars’ routes, their speed, and the wear and tear on their components. While there are certain laws in place to protect users in the US, no single law covers all the data captured by all the other devices in automobiles.

The use of this technology is expected to grow exponentially thanks to car insurance companies. According to Gartner, by 2020, there will be a quarter billion connected vehicles on the road. By adopting this new technology, insurance firms should be able to provide lower premiums due to a heightened ability to assess customers’ risk levels.

While consumers may be uncomfortable with the amount of information being shared, until the new GDPR laws come into effect, they are left with two options: accept the information collection and the potential data sharing that comes with it, or bow out of using technology entirely. Despite the new laws, many leading software and hardware manufacturers will argue they require data collection in order to optimize their devices’ performance. In order to tackle this problem without becoming mountain hermits, we need to move toward a data-aware society in which people know when and how their data is being sold, essentially taking steps to regulate and control its use.

Author bio

Roger Haenni, is co-founder of Datum Network, a decentralized and distributed high performance NOSQL database backed by a blockchain ledger.