Big Data is watching

It’s not paranoia. Companies really are collecting our personal data at an alarming rate.

This week, I found myself writing a story that dove into the ways that companies gather data from our devices. In the story, the data was being used ethically by a company out of Norway to track how well communities were practicing social distancing. But ethical data usage is a thin line and companies often cross it, or erase it altogether.

Since philosophical arguments about technology and big data can fill volumes, I’m not going to delve into whether or not the trade off for a globally connected society means less personal privacy. Instead, I’m going to give you the keys to opt out (at least a little) from the machine.

While most people associate “Big Brother” with the Orwellian powers of the state, it’s corporations that are buying and selling your data like it is a commodity. There is even a word for them, “data brokers.” That’s not to say that the state isn’t also guilty of participating in these trades, but corporations are definitely in the lion’s share.

Unfortunately, amassing and selling your personal data is legal in the United States, though some states, with California in the lead, have moved to restrict how companies gather such data. But for the most part, the world of internet data collections is a wild frontier where few laws and regulations apply.

That’s not to say that all data collection is bad. As I mentioned earlier, plenty of data is used to contribute to the common good as well as global knowledge stores and research. So, before you opt out entirely, consider that your data isn’t just going to the bad guys.

Now, down to brass tacks. There are a few simple steps you can take to make sure you are protecting yourself as much as possible. The first is incredibly simple, but also ironically, one of the most difficult — read those privacy policies.

Yes, privacy policies. Those long blocks of text that pop up any time you download a new app. The same ones that we all scroll through until we get to the bottom and click the box that says, “I agree.”

These policies are almost always included as a way for companies to cover themselves from lawsuits and, as anyone who has ever clicked the “do not agree” box can attest, you are usually required to agree to their terms or you can’t use their apps.

I know it’s hard, but if an app collects data you aren’t comfortable with the best way to avoid it is to check that “do not agree” box and then find an app that doesn’t violate those principals. Additionally, some apps allow you to “opt-out” of data collection. I would encourage you to do this whenever possible.

Another good practice is to make sure you are controlling how much data your individual device is willing to give up. Turn off location settings in your phone if you don’t want your location to be tracked. But be warned, doing this will disable your phone’s GPS system and any program that relies on it.

You can also limit, though not completely eliminate, ad tracking on your devices through your settings. I would suggest looking online for guides at either support.apple.com or support.google.com depending on whether or not you have an Apple or Android, respectively.

Lastly, keep your Bluetooth turned off. This simple step can help you avoid leaking data through apps or devices that allow Bluetooth data collection.

Data collection and global connectedness are complicated, dangerous and, frankly, messy. It’s best to always practice good privacy and security measures when you can. Until we have stronger privacy laws globally, this will continue to be an issue, but at least now you know how to shut some of the open windows.

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