In March 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke in the news. The British consultancy firm had obtained Facebook personal data of around 3 million people which had then been used for electoral purposes in the 2017 US Presidential elections, in which Donald Trump was elected president.
As a result of this scandal, many Internet users were alerted to how their personal data was being used. Whilst it is true that the services we most value on the Internet such as Google, Instagram or Facebook are free, it is also true to say that they are charging us for the privilege. The business model used by these companies is based upon effective models of product advertising which are linked to our interests and activity. By offering a free service they reach a greater segmentation.
To understand what data these Internet companies collect from us, it is useful to make a comparison with the “offline world”. Would you allow a group of detectives to come into your home and tap your telephone, install cameras and microphones all over your house, constantly check your mailbox and ask everyone who entered your house for identification? Probably not. However, this is what you sign up for when you accept the conditions of an online service.
Google, the new Big Brother
Google knows where you are when you turn on your mobile and when your geolocation has been activated. It knows the places you have been to, the time you spent in each and the route you took to get there. It is the same system that you use when you open Google Maps. This means that everything which has access to your Google account also has access to this information. In fact, anyone who has access to someone else’s Google account can see what they have been up to for the last 10 years (a useful thing to know if you are in the process of getting divorced). However, it is also important to know that you can delete Google data.
Google also saves all the Internet searches that you have made as well as those you have deleted from your device. By doing this, it has a store of all the information you have shown an interest in and then uses this information to offer you personalised advertising based on your interests, gender, age etc. Google shows us this information and even lets us add to it by getting us to tell it what our interests are to make their advertising even more personalised. You can check this here.
Google is indeed the Big Brother of the online world. It stores information about the apps we use and the amount of time we spend on each. It can find out when we eat and sleep as well as when we use our mobiles, where we are when we use them, if we practice a religion or do sport. It also knows how we use Google or YouTube and all our activity on social networks. Upon request, Google is obliged to send you a downloadable file with all the information they have about you.
Control by social networks
Facebook also collects data about its users and has access to all of this information. Messages, photos and sent files are registered by the company so that it can offer a greater personalisation to its advertising clients. An example of this was during the US Presidential elections when potential Republican voters received messages in favour of Donald Trump. Facebook exercises complete transparency with its users as detailed in its data policy.
Facebook stores everything related to your profile so that when it comes to suggesting advertising content they have more of a chance of getting it right. This is why the company registers and stores all the “Likes” you make, the links you share and monitors how many times you connect and from which device. It can even access your camera and microphone from your device, know which events you have attended, which events you have recommended to your Facebook friends, the photos you have taken and the messages you have received, even though you have deleted them from your device. I am sure that Facebook knows more about us and our objectives than we think we know about ourselves.
The rest of the social networks have similar policies. Both LinkedIn and Instagram offer exhaustive information about which data they collect and how it is used. They even let you modify some specifications. After reading this article, you may be contemplating deleting the accounts that you have with these companies. However, before doing so, ask yourself these two questions: how useful do you find it having instant access to information? And how much would you be willing to pay to have an email account and be permanently in touch with your friends? Depending on your answers, it might be worth considering how much of your privacy you are willing to give up in return for these services.
My advice is to think before you access the Internet, be aware that everything you do will be registered. Think of it as if you were in the Big Brother house in a room full of cameras and microphones which everyone has access to. However, before you hit the delete button, also think about the positive side. Thanks to all the information that is collected by these companies, you may receive information one day about something that really interests you. And that wouldn’t be so bad, would it?
About the author
Dr David Roman holds a PhD (specialisation in Mobile Maketing) from the Universitat de Vic-Universitat Central de Catalunya, an EMBA and a diploma in Marketing Management from EADA, a Master in Interactive Digital Communication from UVic-UCC, as well as a degree in Communication Sciences (Publicity) from the UAB. He has worked in different companies in marketing and communication posts and as a marketing consultant. In addition to being an Associate Professor in EADA, he is a programme director. David publishes marketing case studies and technical notes. He was the first European to receive the Curtis E. Tate prize for the best case study in 2013, published in The Case Research Journal, the most prestigious academic case studies journal worldwide, edited by NACRA (North American Case Research Association).