This Concerns You: How Companies Collect Our Data To Make A Profit

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The thin line between right and wrong when companies collect user data to make a profit and more. For people who have smart-phones, apps are a big part of their everyday lives. Facebook, Google Maps and Skype all collect user data. Everyone who has a Facebook account, for example, has agreed to a certain set of guidelines. Few read the guidelines that describe exactly how the company collects data and how they analyze and use it.

The first paragraph of Facebook’s Data Policy explains that they collect the information that users provide when they sign up. This includes private messages that are exchanged with other users, the location of the photos that are uploaded, and the date that a file is created. They monitor what content a user views, likes, or shares as well as the frequency and duration of a user’s activities. Facebook also collects information that other users provide about the user including when they sync and import their contact information. They also analyze interactions with other connections and if a user purchases or donates through Facebook, and all their billing information including their credit card number.

Even the information about the devices that a user logs into their Facebook account from is recorded. This includes the type of hardware, software names and types, battery strength, specific geographic locations, browser type, language and even IP address. Third-party websites and apps that use Facebook services are also subject to collection of data about what they share and use.

The provided information is used to personalize content and offer users what Facebook thinks they will be interested in based on the analysis of their data. One example is suggesting that a friend tag in the photo based on past photos and past communications. Facebook also shares information such as advertising, measurement, and analytic services with third parties, but not personally identifiable information. When users delete their Facebook accounts, all their posts, photos and all information associated with their accounts are deleted also.

Facebook makes its profit from companies who use it for advertising. But what makes them so interested in advertising over Facebook? One reason is because the user data that Facebook collects and analyzes helps companies advertise more effectively. The second reason is cost.

“The last time we bought ads on the trams we invested around 500,000 CZK and the impact on our sales was very low,” explains Petr Šidlo, owner of Direct People. “Our currently most efficient campaigns are running on Facebook for a fraction of these costs.”

Šidlo explains that social media is designed to be useful for advertisers, delivering good value for both end-users and advertisers. Because social media owners profit from companies wanting to advertise and not directly from users, the guidelines might become increasingly unfavorable towards the user. 

Unfortunately there are also government interests,” notes Šidlo, referring to the government’s wish to use the data that Facebook gathers in order to police its citizens. Many criticize the power that the data gives companies, governments and whoever else controls this sensitive information.

This brings us to the dark side of the issue. Like Facebook, Google describes its data policy and makes it easy to find. Yet a lot of people are very critical and don’t trust Google’s intentions. According to an article from February 2014, Google does several unethical things.

Everyone knows that Google sends out cars to photograph streets for Street View. But the New Yorker has reported that Google collects data from people’s computers without their permission – Google supposedly even admitted to it after being sued by 38 states. Another issue is that Gmail, one of the most popular email platforms, is accused of scanning emails and selling profiles of users to companies in order to try to sell products to them. This isn’t something that Gmail users agree to, which is why people have tried to sue Google because of it.

Android is another way that Google supposedly spies on people; some believe that Google intentionally reads passwords in order to sell governments information about us. According to Computer World, Google isn’t alone in doing this – Yahoo, Skype, Apple, Microsoft, DropBox and the previously mentioned Facebook engage in similar activities.

According to a 2013 Entrepreneur article, Google made $289 billion dollars in 2012 while Facebook made $58 billion. The article compared information about the data collection practices of Google, Facebook and several other companies. They compared the word count of the privacy policies at Google+/YouTube and Facebook, which are 2,250 and 9,623 words respectively. It is surprising that Facebook has so many more words, but perhaps that is why people trust it more than they trust Google – although fewer words make Google’s privacy policy more accessible and easier to read.

The article also compares what type of data is gathered and how. Both Google and Facebook collect: ad clicks, device-specific information, ISP, ad names, phone numbers, search queries, time, date, browser used, email address, IP address, location, operating system, profile information and third-party connect data. They share methods of tracking data through cookies, double click, AdSense, profile, third parties, device-tracking technology and search queries. The data is then used to target advertising, provide location services, notifications, personalized content, and to integrate multiple accounts and third-party info exchange.

Statistics from 2013 show that Facebook and Google use all of the above data tracking practices, but Facebook also uses facial recognition software, which Google doesn’t. The other companies compared to the two big companies are Apple, Amazon and Yahoo. All three collect similar data, using similar methods and have similar uses for it – however Facebook is the only one to use them all. 

Google even has a website that lets you see the results of their location tracking. Anyone with a smart phone connected to a Gmail account can pick a day in time and see where they were. It tracks location as long as there is an internet connection. Some find this cool and others are scared. These applications are capable of using past data to predict future outcomes. It’s harmless and even helpful if Google offers you directions to your next destination without your asking. But what else can Google predict?

According to Forbes magazine, Google Trends are able to predict the market. But what if they combine the data they collect about users; such as where a person goes on certain days, who they talk to and what they like? This isn’t something we know yet, but it’s one reason that some people don’t want their every step to be monitored and recorded. 

The truth is, no matter the controversy, data collection and analysis is beneficial to everyone involved. Although it can be intrusive on a user’s privacy, collected data can be analyzed in order to make programs and applications more efficient in our favor. Although it also helps companies target their advertisements more efficiently, in order to keep people using these applications, they need to keep improving them based on the users’ needs. Also despite all the accusations, people continue using these programs because they are convenient.

But it’s important for companies to become more transparent about what data they are collecting and how it is being used.

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