Information about you is valuable. Someone is going to use information about you. The ways your information is used may be innocuous or just mildly annoying, for example to tailor which online ads you see, but in the worst-case scenario, digital information can be used against you. Data from cell phones, email accounts, computer hard drives, and other sources can be subpoenaed, and in some circumstances used in court.
Think of the expense Google and Facebook go to enticing you to reveal personal information through their free services. Think about these questions: how much is your information worth to Google or Facebook? How do companies or other organizations make money from using your information?
Google is worth around $520 billion. They make over half their money selling advertising. Advertisers want to reach the person most likely to buy their product and they want to do it in as cost effective way as possible. Google uses the massive amount of data it has about all its users to help advertisers target their ads to the most likely customers.
Another way Google makes money is by selling information about its customers. This information can be used to get a very accurate picture of you, even if they do not put a name to it. Often the data is sold to aggregators who combine the data with other information to get an even more accurate picture (making the information more valuable).
Laws regulating data sharing are very limited. With the exception of California, there are no requirements that companies report on what they’ve shared. Governments are major users of collected online data; for example, in 2013, it was revealed that the National Security Agency (NSA) was regularly collecting data from social-media companies and cell-phone providers. It is safe to assume that companies, institutions, and governments are saving and exchanging information about you.
Often free apps collect information about you to resell (that is why they app is free). Think before you share the information. Is the service worth the information you are giving up? If you don’t understand what you are sharing you probably shouldn’t share.
Only give out as much personal information as you have to. For example, before you enter any information in a form or allow an app or service to access information about you, ask yourself why they need it.
Here are some tips for protecting your valuable information:
- Give them made-up information.
- Choose some other way of getting that service.
- Check your privacy status with companies. Banks, insurance providers, hospitals, and other companies are often legally bound to let you opt out of at least some types of data sharing.
- Pay attention to mail and email about privacy from companies.