Risks Associated with Customer Data Harvesting and How to Protect Yourself

The ubiquity of the internet and advances in mobile technology in recent years has made it almost impossible for people to keep their data private. In a 2018 global internet survey by Ipsos, 52% of internet users said they were more concerned about the erosion of online privacy in the past year. Data harvesting, the process of using malicious bots and scripts to automatically extract data from websites, and other dubious data collection techniques have become commonplace. 

Practices such as data harvesting work, in part, because you agree to give up some of your data. For instance, an online shopper may agree to the retailer collecting a bit of information on his/her shopping behavior in exchange for the convenience of using a credit card or a debit card to pay for goods. This exact data will be used to create user profiles for targeted advertising. Some service providers may sell this data to third parties or give external applications access to personal data. 

Risks to the Consumer

Data harvesting puts your personal information at risk. Profiles created through data harvesting schemes may contain information on millions of people. The harvested data, usually stored in one place, can be easily compromised by cybercriminals. Hackers can access the data through unsecured databases, security flaws, and misconfigured servers. For instance, Alteryx, a US-based data analytics company found itself in hot water for mishandling customer data in 2017.

Alteryx ended up exposing particularly sensitive information belonging to American consumers. The data — which included information such as purchase history, financial histories, mortgage details, contact details, and home addresses — was stored on an unsecured database. A year earlier, hackers had been able to access and expose data belonging to millions of people. The culprit, a US-based data management company Modern Business Solutions had stored the data in an unsecured data repository.

How to Protect Your Personal Information from Data Harvesting

Large collections of detailed personal information are very appealing to cybercriminals. With enough pieces of information about you, hackers can even steal your identity. That’s why you should always be careful when using websites, apps, and social media platforms that collect and store personal information. Here are several steps you can take to protect your personal information from data harvesting.

Use a VPN

A Virtual Private Network (VPN) is one of the most effective privacy tools available. A VPN helps you create a secure, encrypted connection between your device and the server you are connected to when browsing the internet on public Wi-Fi. Using a VPN ensures that no one can look into your internet traffic or track your online activity. Use a VPN to secure your data and prevent data harvesting when browsing the internet.

Review Privacy Settings

Regardless of the operating system your device is running (iOS or Android) or hardware manufacturer (Apple, Samsung, Huawei, etc.), mobile apps will collect personal information. When installed, some mobile apps get unrestricted access to more data than necessary. Review privacy settings on your device and disable those settings or features that are collecting unnecessary data. For instance, Snapchat doesn’t need access to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth data or ‘Device ID & call information’.

Avoid Free Apps and Services

Refrain from using free apps and services especially where paid versions are available, including free VPNs. Nothing is ever really free on the internet. Apps and services that providers tout as ‘free’ are most likely harvesting personal information from your device. Free apps and services will either sell the data collected to third parties or find ways to target specific features and products based on your browsing history.

Update Ad Preferences on Social Media

The fastest way for social media platforms and search engines to make easy money is by tracking user interests and targeting related advertisements to users. These platforms will track your search history, location, and other online activity. Often, you will do a casual search on Google only to come across ads of the product or service you were looking for when perusing through Facebook feeds.  Update ad preferences on social media to avoid such targeting.

Use Temporary Email

It’s always a good idea to use a temporary email when trying out new products or services. Using your permanent email address every time, even when you are trying a new service exposes you to data harvesting from an app or service that you are not even committed to. The best way to go about it is to have a separate subscription email that you can switch when you have settled on the service.

Time and again, companies have compromised personal information to push for growth and revenue. In 2018, the New York Times reported that Facebook gave several big tech companies including Amazon, Microsoft, and Netflix access to sensitive user data. Research shows that Android apps transfer personal information to companies such as Google and Facebook allowing them to create detailed user profiles for targeted advertisements.  It’s upon the consumer to find ways to protect themselves against data harvesting.

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