Whose data is it anyway?

Whose data is it anyway?Who has access to your data and what do they do with it? 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. 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?

Listen to Maya and Mapalo discussing this and other topics on the My Money, My Lifestyle podcast.

Let’s take for example, the social media giant Facebook. Facebook has over 2.41 billion users worldwide. What’s their biggest resource? Our data.

Targeted advertising

With every comment, click, like, or 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 lagging. More and more voices are coming to the front 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 recently, but to put that amount into context, last year alone, Facebook’s profit topped $22 billion.

If you are not on Facebook, remember that Facebook also owns WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger but they are not limited to these social networks to collect data. Scott Galloway, a NYU business professor says Mark Zuckerberg is ‘the most dangerous person in the world’ because by 2020, if Mark 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.

What about those cookies?

However, it is what is in those terms and conditions that we never read that leaves much 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 those cookies!

An HTTP cookie (also called web cookie, Internet cookie, browser cookie, or simply cookie) is a small piece 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 to 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.

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?

With hackers and marketers becoming smarter than ever, keeping your passwords, financial and other personal information safe and protected from outside intruders is increasingly becoming a priority for consumers.

Unfortunately governments are still trying to find a way to regulate data privacy and protection. Here in SA, we have the PoPI Act , a law which is meant to protect consumer data, but this law is yet to come into effect.

According to Workpool, the purpose of the PoPI Act is to ensure that all South African 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 personal information in any way.

Steps you can take to protect your data

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 it to be misused. There are practical steps you can take to do so:

  • Don’t conduct personally sensitive activites on free public 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 when you’re not using it
  • Don’t store your passwords with your laptop or cellphone
  • Be aware of privacy settings and always choose the option with the least amount of data sharing
  • Don’t click on suspicious links
  • Turn off your Bluetooth when you are not using it

If your personal data lands 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 or 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!

This article first appeared in City Press.

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