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How to Know if Your Data is Being Used Maliciously
The information you should know about a company before gifting them your data
I was reading’s “The barista took my data. All I got was coffee and slow internet” and it got me thinking about data. His writing is a comical tale about a very real predicament concerning data harvesting. These days, no one worries about if their data is being stolen; instead, everyone has to worry about how.
What is data harvesting?
Data harvesting is gathering data in some way to use for some purpose (according to ChatGPT). A beautifully vague definition. So what is it actually? The most common use of data harvesting is companies collecting data when you use their product and using this data for their own benefit.
I have an atypical stance on data harvesting: it isn’t always bad. In fact, I think a lot of the time it’s probably good for the user; however, users have been taught to fear data harvesting. Part of this fear is due to fearmongering by media outlets, but I think part of this fear is also warranted. There’s nothing more frightening than a violation of your privacy—especially when it’s entirely out of your control.
But the truth is, data will likely only be gathered more as time goes on. It’s vital to make sure it doesn’t fall into the hands of someone trying to use it maliciously. To do so, you must understand three aspects of data harvesting:
The type of data gathered
How that data is used
How that data is stored
The data collected
Data is gathered in two primary categories: usage data and user data. Usage data pertains to the way a user interacts with a service. This type of data helps companies better understand how their services are used and find ways to improve them. User data is data pertaining to a specific user. This includes personal information such as your name, email address, payment information, etc.
Some people are completely opposed to user data being collected, but user data is required for the smooth user experience we’ve come to expect in apps these days. User data is required for basic features such as account creation and curating your social feed. User data is also often intertwined with usage data. For example, while your search history can be considered usage data, it might also contain your personal information.
How data is used
There are two primary ways data is used:
Tailoring a product to your needs
Let’s take YouTube as an example. Have you ever been opened the YouTube app and noticed every video on your home page has subject material you’re interested in? That’s an example of YouTube using your data to accurately predict what videos you want to see.
Have you ever been looking to refinance a loan and gotten a call from someone you’ve never contacted who knows you’re looking to do that? Likely, you put your phone number or email into a service that helps refinance loans and they sold that info to the highest bidder.
Never give data to a company that sells your user data. This means you’re the product that company is selling.
How data is stored
Even if your data is gathered respectfully and used responsibly, it still needs to be stored properly. How would you feel if thousands of Facebook employees had access to your password?
Data needs to be secure, anonymized (when possible), inaccessible by company employees, and stored according to the appropriate privacy laws. Privacy laws are put into place to make sure the privacy of users can’t be exploited by the technology they use every day.
As a user of the internet, what can I do to protect my data?
What data does the company collect?
Does a company sell your data?
How does the company use your data?
Does the company give you control over your data?
Is your data stored safely?
Does the company handle data with respect to local laws?
Answering these six will let you answer the ultimate question: Can you trust this company with your data?
Mind your data
Data privacy is something we understand better as time goes on. Laws and regulations relating to digital privacy will continue to evolve to protect users from being exploited, but we still need to do our own research to understand how our data is being used.
That being said, data harvesting by companies is part of what gives us the buttery smooth user experiences we enjoy so much. Your autocorrect can make such accurate predictions because it has collected data on how you text. Your search results are as good as they are because data has been collected about what you’re searching for. In these cases, the data collection is for your benefit.
This isn’t always the case. Our data can be used to make our lives better, or it can make our lives significantly worse. Leaked user data can be potentially dangerous, especially if it takes the form of sensitive information like a social security number or account passwords. This is why it’s always better to be safe than sorry with regard to who you give your data to.
What’s even more complex are the grey areas of curating a user experience. Is it okay for your user and usage data be used to manipulate how you use a service? What if a company can use this data to monetize you under the guise of creating a better user experience for you?
One last thought: If having user data is so profitable for companies, should there be some sort of revenue sharing system for a company using your data to profit? I used to think this was farfetched until X started sharing ad revenue with users. Will data revenue sharing follow suit?
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