SecurityTechnology
June 18, 2019

Who are the people buying your digital data?

What’s for sale? Who’s buying? And what can you do about it?

For a few years now, there’s been a throwaway metaphor bounced around various industries and publications; “Data is the new oil”. In reality, the metaphor doesn’t quite work; oil’s tangible asset that’s traded openly between bespoke-suit clad city-types – you could even link your savings to its value if you tried.

Ironically, oil is clean – and while the companies that are built on your data may well trade on the TSX, it can be argued that the buying and selling of your individual data is anything but.

Debate rages on about whether or not the world is ready for the avalanche of data that’s being collected by companies and governments each day – but, regulated or otherwise, clean or murky, data is swapping hands for enormous amounts of money. Chances are, some of your information’s in there too.

What are data brokers?

The term ‘data broker’ sounds above board – and, generally, they’re operating within the law. In fact, there are data brokers operating for some of the biggest software and tech companies in the world – Datalogix for instance.

Companies like this create files on individuals based on behaviour that’s seen through other companies, social media, internet service providers, banks, and so on. The number of people who access the internet using privacy browsers compared to those who use mainstream browsers is tiny – so there’s plenty of information out there to gather. These files are then used to help other companies fine-tune their marketing – targeting you based on age, income, geographical location, ethnicity, and a significant number of other characteristics. In soft terms, this part of marketing is about ‘knowing your audience’.

Is this kind of data sharing dangerous? Well, it depends on your viewpoint. The companies buying these data aren’t going to steal your identity and take out a credit card – but they do find themselves with the ability to target you based on what they know about you. You don’t get to opt out of the marketing just because you’ve run into bad credit – that’s not how marketing works. In fact, the whole idea behind marketing is to find the people who’ll part with their money – regardless of whether or not that’s what’s best for you.

Of course, this kind of data-use happens behind closed doors. Industry secrets that are intended to give companies the competitive edge. Not all redistribution of data is quite so protected though.

There’s another type of data broker; the services and sites that let you punch in a few details about an individual before selling you more. Want to know someone’s name and address history? Their political affiliations? Details about their relatives? The services are out there – and they’ll sell access to your information to anyone who’s willing to part with the money.

As if having your data available to companies and individuals wasn’t daunting enough, there’s an even darker side of data collection and sale – that done by cyber-criminals. From phishing scams and identity theft, to the targeting of young or otherwise vulnerable individuals, personal details are worth a tremendous amount of money to people who’ll look to exploit you with it.

So, all things considered, the term ‘data broker’ isn’t really that helpful. What is helpful is understanding the intent behind the marketplace – and, generally, that intent is based on targeting you – for better or for worse.

Should you care about your data being out there?

For most people, having some portion of your personal data out in the world feels inconsequential. Society is changing – and governments are having to adapt their approaches to influence this change. By now, we’ve probably all realised that the large social media companies probably know what we’re going to eat for breakfast before we do – the trouble is, benevolent and malevolent data collection go hand-in-hand.

Realistically, is it a problem if a credit referencing facility knows you’re holidaying in Europe? What does it matter if there’s a record of who provides your gas and electricity on a server somewhere? The thing is, in the wrong hands, this data will build a bigger picture of you and your life. These are just examples – but they’re things that a criminal could use if they wanted to do a convincing job of imitating you.

So, should you care? The answer is a very definite yes – when your data is ‘out there’ you might never reel it back in – and you’re potentially at the mercy of people with sinister intentions. It might feel impossible to live your life away from an internet connection – but that doesn’t mean we have to openly broadcast everything we do, every location we visit, or every website we frequent.

How to keep your data private

The Canadian Centre for Cyber Security notes that “Cybercrime is the most common threat that Canadians and Canadian organizations are likely to encounter.” So, in the absence of sweeping international regulation change, the onus falls on each one of us to make sure we’re being safe – especially as we do business online.

There’s an element of behavioural change that can help to make sure we’re safe. Using different usernames and password combinations is a good first step – as is using good virus detection software and keeping your operating system and software up to date.

The thing is though, this often isn’t enough. We’ve become reliant on technology that often doesn’t keep pace with the most sophisticated criminals. Increasingly, we need to look toward using VPNs and secure browsers to make sure we’re ahead of the crowd.

Sadly, this ‘ahead of the crowd’ mindset is where we need to be with data security. If you’re running away from a lion, you don’t have to be fast – you just have to be faster than the person next to you. The same is true of cybercrime: Unless you’re particularly high-profile or wealthy, it’s very unlikely that you’ll be targeted specifically – since the most attractive prospects are those who are lacklustre with their data.

Data might not quite have the market flexibility of oil yet, but to those who operate in the shadows, you might argue that it’s even more valuable.

About this author

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Howard Dawson

Howard Dawson is a writer and tech enthusiast at Strictly Digital.

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