Whether we like it or not, the apps and services that tech giants like Google and Facebook provide us with are not a one-way deal. For years now, we have been aware of things like data collection, targeted marketing and digital surveillance. Today we’ll look at the ways that tech conglomerates collect your data and what you can do about it.
What is data collection?
Data collection is the act of scraping data from users of a platform, usually performed by the platform provider or third parties. This data could include basic demographic information such as your name, birthdate, gender and employment. The data collected could also be more in depth such as hobbies, likes/dislikes, behaviours and interests. This data can be extracted through information you voluntarily surrendered to the platform, or it may be scraped through less than ethical means such as through behavioural analysis. Let’s look into the ways big tech is scraping your data.
As one of the original tech conglomerates, Facebook is responsible for some of the first data collection policies in the digital era. Beacon was Facebook’s first experiment into data collection and monetisation. Beacon was an advertising software that collected user data and shopping habits to promote targeted ads and share purchasing activities on behalf of users. This software caused immense backlash from Facebook users. Not only did users object to private purchases being shared with their Facebook network without consent, but it was also discovered that Facebook had the ability to track you across tabs and even after you had logged out of your profile.
Although Facebook shut down Beacon in 2009 following a class action lawsuit, the policies of data collection still remain. To this day, Facebook still tracks your activity across other tabs and apps to feed its data machine. This means that while having Facebook open, you are providing the organisation with access to your purchasing habits and other online activities.
Instagram also scrapes your information in order to sell you products both through its parent company, Facebook/Meta as well as its own data collecting practices. Every account you follow and every scroll, pause and interaction you make on Instagram is used to build behavioural profiles on users. The data collected is mostly used for advertising products that the algorithm suggests to you based off the personal information knowingly and unknowingly surrendered. Through the collection of users private data and behaviours, Instagram is able to earn an estimated $20 billion in advertising revenue per year.
TikTok may not come to mind when thinking of tech conglomerates, but the platform now boasts over a billion users and that number is still growing. However, concerns surrounding TikTok’s data collection practices have arisen over the last twelve months. The Australian privacy watchdog has been keeping TikTok under close scrutiny after excessive data harvesting practices were revealed in a national whitepaper.
According to a whitepaper, TikTok checks a user’s location hourly, consistently requests access to contacts, spies on a device’s running and installed applications and other, sinister data collection policies. Unlike other applications and services like Facebook and Instagram, cybersecurity and tech experts are not currently aware how TikTok uses harvested data at this point in time.
Google is the biggest and longest player in the data collection game. The search engine is a seemingly free service, however, nothing on the internet is free. Users pay for Google with their data. This is collected through your searches, the websites your visit from your searches and even the contents of your Gmail inbox.
The types of user data google can collect includes, but is not limited to:
- Purchase history
- Contact information
- Search data
- Web interactions and more
How can I reject data collection policies on platforms I use?
It is not always easy or possible to curb data collection on the apps, services and devices you use. This is particularly true for free platforms. The collection of your data may be ‘payment’ for the free social media network or search engine you enjoy. However, there are possible ways to reject data collection:
- Stay informed – By even just staying informed on the ways tech giants collect and use your data, you are already rejecting data collection practices.
- Research settings and transparency obligations – In response to the, at times morally bankrupt data collection policies, companies like Apple, Instagram and Facebook have to allow you to view exactly what behavioural markers and interests they collect and use against you for advertising. In the case of Apple, you can even toggle off app surveillance in your settings now.
- Use Firefox & DuckDuckGo – Unlike other browers, Firefox is committed to personal privacy. Firefox have a number of add-ons that can stop Facebook and other sites tracking your internet activity. Similarly, DuckDuckGo is an alternative to Google that does not surveil and sell your intimate searches.
Should I be concerned about data collection policies?
An app, service or device collecting your intimate information to sell on to marketing agencies and large corporations can make some people uncomfortable. For others, the convenience of having targeted ads based on their likes and interests is something that they find favourable. It’s really a personal choice based on your values. Depending on how targeted content and personalisation makes you feel, you may read an article like this to understand data collection and be informed, or to find ways to prevent it happening to you.