Every time you share a hilarious meme with a friend on social media or ask a search engine a question, the information you share is being saved, aggregated, and circulated. You probably don’t give it much thought, but your data can end up in a lot of unexpected places. Here are 11 ways your online data is being used right now.
1. IT’S USED FOR TARGETED ADS.
Websites use your data—the topics you search for, the websites you visit, the links you “like” on social media, and so forth—to create a profile of your interests which they use to choose ads especially for you. If you’ve ever purchased a new pair of shoes or simply browsed a few styles online, only to start noticing ads for those products on your sidebar, that’s no coincidence. Websites are picking up on everything you search for in order to design a personalized advertising experience just for you.
2. SCIENTISTS STUDY IT.
Advertisers aren’t the only ones who want your data, however. Social scientists have uses for it, too. Social media is a rich field for social scientists, who collect and aggregate data on what we decide to share, post, like, and so on, in order to better observe an array of contemporary social trends. For instance, in one 2014 study, a group of researchers teamed up with a major social media website to study how the types of posts users viewed on social media (categorized as “happy” or “sad”) affected the kinds of information they shared in turn, using the online profiles of almost 700,000 of the website’s users to conduct their study.
3. WEBSITES USE IT FOR INTERNAL RESEARCH.
Many websites use their users’ data to conduct internal research. They might study the links you click on, the media you share, or how much time you spend on a given page, in order to optimize the user experience for everyone. Your online behavior might result in tweaks to a website’s design or help inspire new features.
4. COMPANIES SELL YOUR DATA.
Your data is more valuable than you likely realize. In fact, there’s a whole economy in place to buy and sell your online information. Data brokers collect your online data—everything from your name and address to your income and general internet activity—and sell it to other brokers or businesses.
5. ADVERTISERS USE IT TO CREATE ‘CONSUMER CATEGORIES.’
Most of the time, when brokers sell your data, it ends up snapped up by businesses who use it to study consumer behavior and create ever-more-refined targeted ads for everyone. They do this by studying huge chunks of aggregated data in order to create “consumer categories,” like “pet owner,” “sports fan,” or “video gamer.” Based on your data, and the data of others, they identify the characteristics that most often align with each category, from age and income to shared interests.
6. INSURANCE COMPANIES ANALYZE IT.
Like advertisers, insurance companies have been known to purchase and study our online data, using it to set rates and premiums. Some companies may even go as far as to snoop on an individual customer’s social media pages in an attempt to confirm or deny claims.
7. THIEVES USE IT TO STEAL YOUR IDENTITY…
While some of the activity we’ve mentioned so far might be a bit creepy, it’s all legal. But there are also plenty of ways your data could be used illegally. Thieves can use the data you share online to steal your identity, using your name and credit card information to make purchases of their own. While it’s nearly impossible not to put any of that information online (especially if you’re an online shopaholic), it’s important to be careful what websites you use and make sure your passwords are secure in order to avoid having your personal information stolen.
8. …OR PLAN REAL LIFE BURGLARIES.
While most of us know not to send strangers our bank information or passwords, we can still get a little bit sloppy when it comes to the information we share on social media. Thieves can use information you share online to plan real life burglaries. Posting publicly about going on a trip lets potential thieves know your home is being left unguarded.
9. SOCIAL MEDIA SITES USE IT TO HELP YOU FIND FRIENDS.
Social media websites use the information you share, including your hometown and current location, job, and school, to connect you to people you might know. They also use your existing social network—people you’ve already connected with online—to find common connections.
10. APPS USE IT TO SNOOP ON YOUR WHEREABOUTS.
If you have a smartphone, there’s a good chance you’re sharing data without even realizing it. A lot of downloaded phone apps track our whereabouts even when we’re not actively using those programs. And it’s not just location-based apps like maps that record location data—games, social media apps, and even utilities like flashlights record users’ locations. According to one study, smartphone users who used a range of phone apps normally for two weeks had their location recorded up to 5000 times in just 14 days.
11. IT’S BEING STORED—FOREVER.
We’re all accustomed to entering our information online and quickly moving on without a second thought. But when we type our credit card information on a shopping site, or share our name, address, or phone number with our email provider, that information is often being stored—indefinitely. For the most part, websites that save your information won’t do much with it without your permission. But some sites with poor security and unencrypted data can end up becoming the target of hackers. The lesson: Be careful what you share online, because you never know where it’ll end up.
Think your personal info is safe online? Think again. For more misconceptions about the world wide web, plus other everyday things we take for granted, tune into an all new episode of Adam Ruins Everything, Tuesday at 10/9C on truTV.