How data impacts our lives

09 Apr 2019

Is Siri listening in? How do ads know what you like? Who has access to your browsing history, and how can they use it? Whether you’re a conspiracy theorist, or simply intrigued how individuals and businesses can access and use the virtual trail you leave online, this article might reveal a few things you weren’t aware of.

It’s almost impossible to read the news, browse and buy, interact with one another or entertain ourselves online, without handing over a fair chunk of data and personal information. So what data is collected to ‘enhance our user experience’, by whom, and what do they actually use it for?

What are ‘cookies’, and how do they work?

Advertising cookies are short and simple messages that web servers pass to your web browser when you visit a web page. That’s why you’ll see ‘this site uses cookies to improve your user experience’ or similar when you visit some sites. Your browser stores each of these cookies in a small file, and sends it back to the server each time you visit a new page on that site. Cookies are unique to you, and typically contain information about your visit to the web page, as well as any information you've volunteered, such as your name and interests, or a comment or a rating.

In many ways they do improve your experience, as they can keep you logged in and suggest content that may be of more interest or relevance to you, according to location, purchase history, the sections of the site you spend more time looking at, and so on. As many sites sell ad space, you’ll probably see ads that are targeted at you next time you visit the site – and sites linked somehow to the one you’re already using. In some cases, cookies come from advertisers that manage the banner ads for a range of sites, and these advertisers can quickly develop fairly detailed profiles from anyone who clicks on the ads. Often, you’ll have the option to ‘accept cookies’, but not always.

How can I see what cookies are on my computer?

Each browser – Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox and so on – lets you see which sites have stored information about you, collected by cookies. There will always be an option to block all or selected websites from using cookies, but disallowing cookies or removing them effectively makes you anonymous again, albeit temporarily. This means you may find functionality is affected, and that you’re logged out of sites where you usually go straight to a personalised version.

Check your cookie settings and you’ll probably see hundreds, or even thousands of sites listed as storing information about you – and you probably won’t recognise the vast majority of them, which can be quite alarming at first! However, remember that accepting cookies doesn’t give the server of the website you’re visiting any access to your computer, or any personal information you haven’t actively given. Cookies can’t capture or execute code, either, or give your computer a virus.

You may be sharing more than you realise on social media

Concerns about data security and use are understandable when it comes to social media, and in many ways justified. Social media is a firm favourite not just among advertisers, but also among those who want your data for more than simply improving your experience or selling you stuff. Think about how personal some of the things you like and share on social media are, and how revealing they can be about your state of mind, your political persuasions, and your opinions on any number of topics. Fact is, signing up for pretty much any social media platform means signing away your rights to any of the content you share – and any say in what that content is then used for, whether that’s advertising or socio-economic profiling, or even policymaking. Consider the amount of posts and photos, news articles and opinions you’ve shared over the years, and how many businesses and organisations might find such data useful. It’s quite hard to use social media at all without giving up most of your privacy.

What is big data?

Use of personal data is one thing. ‘Big data’ is another thing entirely. This is when vast amounts of data are collated and analysed to reveal patterns, trends and associations, especially relating to human behaviour and interaction. Conspiracy theorists would say big data is used not just to market to us, but also to better understand and control us by gauging political sentiment and opinions on social issues. Others might say it’s just as useful for improving everyday life and society through a better understanding of our collective behaviour. Who really knows? Maybe it’s a bit of both…

The argument for relevant advertising

Whatever we think about personalised ads, or ads targeted at specific groups using big data, it can be argued that it makes product development and marketing more informed, and therefore less wasteful. What’s more, it’s quite useful when ads are relevant to us, and not just aimed at everyone. It can also be quite amusing when they get it wrong!

It can save a lot of precious time when we browse online for things we need, and introduce us to brands and products we wouldn’t otherwise be aware of. Plus we can shape future products and services by sharing our experiences of current ones. And it can help businesses like ours communicate more directly with the people that can benefit from the expertise, products and services we provide. Opinion will always be divided, but the data we share is arguably crucial to a better online experience, and we ultimately decide whether to share it or not.

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