We have all seen at least one privacy scandal in the news. Some of them make the front page, but they have become so common that many cause barely a stir.
The idea that a company will sell your personal information in exchange for their services is not acceptable, and many people are beginning to wake up and agree.
So, what can you do to protect your information?
Be permission savvy
A good way to protect your information is to check that the permissions that third-party tools request are necessary for them to operate. Yes, this does often mean reading an extra screen when you sign up to a service, but many shady collection operations are actually happening with the users permission. An inbox organisation tool will need read access to your emails, but should it be requesting location access too? A photo app will need to look at your photos, but should it be requesting access to your browsing history? The answer is probably no.
Requests for additional permissions can be disguised as necessary, for example an app may ask for access to your contacts so that you can invite your friends. This may be a harmless and genuine request, but since it is not critical to the application's function but if you decline access then the service should still operate. If you are unable to continue using a product after rejecting unnecessary permissions, then it’s probably a good idea to bin it.
If you are concerned about the permissions you have already given to an application there are usually ways to view and revoke them. If you use single sign-on (SSO) with Google, Facebook, or Twitter etc then you can view third-party apps with access to your account and what permissions you granted them. Removing an app will invalidate the API key they have for you, and they will no longer be able to view your information until you authenticate again.
Don’t share too much data
You also need to determine if the data that third-party services ask for is required. This part is harder to police. Following the Open Startup trend many companies are operating more openly and sharing the details about what data they collect, use, and store. A little research about a product, or often just a good nose around the homepage, can be very beneficial. You may learn more about where your information is going to end up, or whether you can deactivate your account and have it all removed if you want.
As a consumer in the EU, then data privacy is easier to ensure (but not guaranteed), thanks to the introduction of GDPR. For the rest of you, extra vigilance is required!
Next time you are researching a product, check if they are an Open Startup or have an open revenue page. If they are open about how they make their money and other metrics, it is often a positive sign for how they run their business.
Limit unwanted profiling
Unless you are willing to give up using the internet some of your information is probably going to be shared. However, you can limit the amount of profiling and tracking that can be done, and make it more difficult for businesses to piece together your digital life.
The best solution is to switch to a privacy-focused browser such as Brave, which blocks ads and trackers by default. Using Brave means that you can prevent location tracking from Google Analytics, pixel tracking from Facebook Ads, and most other tracking you can think of.
Brave is available cross-platform and is great for slow connections, such as on mobile. Downloading adverts, or trackers doing tracking, can impact page load speed and browsing experience.
Coupled with using a private search engine, such as DuckDuckGo, you can quickly reduce the amount of data you share.
The downside to using this setup is that your search results won’t be tailored to you. This could be frustrating, especially at work where years of receiving personalised results have made it quick and easy to find answers to common questions in your field.
If you aren’t quite ready to give up the convenience of using Chrome and Google just yet, then you can still stop some of the profiling by installing extensions such as uBlock which block ads and trackers. Although that said, Google have recently proposed changes which will stop certain ad blockers from working properly, a move which has seen a sharp rise in the number of people switching to Firefox.
Stop using live chat
Another ubiquitous feature of the web is live chat, such as Intercom, Drift, or Crisp. Many of these services are following you around the net, so that when you land on a website they already know who you are.
It would be very difficult to avoid sites which use live chat. Using Brave helps as they block most of the tracking by default. You can also choose to use products and services which use privacy-focused or self-hosted live chat alternatives such as Intergram.
I recently researched live chat apps from a privacy and ethics point of view and found that they are collecting and aggregating a lot of information unnecessary information. There is too much to talk about to dig deeper in this post, but comment or message me if you want me to write about it in another article!
Use privacy-focused products
The best way to protect yourself and your information is to choose and support products that value privacy. Most of these products charge for their services. Paid services have an established way to make money and shouldn’t need to sell your information to keep afloat.
There seems to be a growing trend of users choosing to pay for services instead of opting to trade their data for a free product. Many of these are made by small teams and independent developers who really need your support to continue working on ethical products that put users and privacy first.
Privacy and data security are popular topics. It’s becoming much easier to avoid services which are tracking you, storing your data, and selling it. Though it may take a little time to switch browsers, add extensions, and seek out privacy-focused and ethical alternatives, it sure beats being sold out.