The fact that there is no privacy on the Internet has long become a popular term. But how much are we being monitored online and by whom? How tech companies access user data and what do they do with it? Let’s find out.
Hardly a month goes by without a tech firm, being in the news about eavesdropping on its customers and some whistleblower exposing them and there are no hackers involved. It is specifically about tech companies, sometimes entire industries. And often it is not even illegal in the end as the vast majority of users have at least ostensibly consented to such behavior by clicking ‘Yes, I agree’. In this way, data from countless users is skimmed off and on a very large scale. But what does this big invasion of privacy look like? Let’s see how tech companies access users’ data and what do they do with it?
1. Operating Systems – How Tech Companies Access User Data
No computer, no smartphone, no internet-enabled device can do without an operating system. And it can be very valuable for the creators of these services to collect data about user behavior. This is particularly critical because the operating system is at the heart of digital life as, without the operating system, individual programs will be unusable. If you want to do something digitally, the operating system has to be involved.
The basic assurance behind data sharing is usually and only to enhance user comfort and performance but you have to be prepared for the fact that data is skimmed off with almost every operating system. The criticism of Windows 10 and the advice to switch off many default features are only so prominent because this operating system is the most widely used.
2. Internet Provider
Internet Service Providers or ISP are the next big problem and a way that allows tech companies to access user data. Similar to the operating system, nothing works without it, at least not over the Internet. But where mobile phone operators at least ‘only’ notice the data streams of a mobile device, the situation is different for domestic Internet providers.
Many data streams come together here via devices connected via LAN and WLAN:
- Smartphones and tablets
- Smart speaker
- Smart home
- Smart TVs and streaming sticks
- Smart home appliances
In principle, everything that goes online at home runs through the bottleneck provider. Officially, it only stores information that it needs to create bills. But it is a simple fact that they can see who did what and when. The MAC address of the devices and the assigned IP addresses make it possible.
A VPN can be a good solution to this privacy invasion. A virtual private network (VPN) can disguise and encrypt the IP address in front of Internet providers. This provides double security, which extends even to the site operator. This is the most important reason why everyone who cares about privacy should always connect to a local VPN.
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3. Site Operator
Understandably, the operator of a website knows what users are doing on it. But that alone would not even be a big problem because you could prevent it by simply not using one site.
The problem, however, lies in something that each of us has already clicked on, the consent to the setting of cookies which is a key component of the DPA (Data Protection Act) among others. Specifically, you have to actively agree to the terms of cookies. However, many pages tend to obscure what happens as a result. For example, by explaining the exact types of cookies in hidden sub-menus. Unfortunately, user laziness is often the greatest security risk here.
The problem with cookies is that they are like little spies. You can track which pages you are on, record what you do on the page you are visiting, and collect a lot of personal data.
Though, one good thing is that most browsers allow cookies to be suppressed very aggressively, for example, by automatically deleting them as soon as you leave a page.
4. App Programmers and Operators – How Tech Companies Access User Data
A good browser with sensible data protection settings can be a very good data protection barrier in connection with a VPN. Again, the problem is in front of the screen as we tend not to take the detour via the browser. Instead, we install apps because they are more comfortable.
However, that is exactly the catch. Browsers make every page the same thanks to their security rules. Apps, on the other hand, can penetrate a device like a Trojan horse and can demand completely different rights. If you have an Android device, you can get a good overview of it since version 6.0.
It is sobering for many to realize that their favorite messaging app can read the contact list or the contents of the device and SD memory for no apparent reason. The fact that a shopping app can call up the location can also only be explained with collective anger.
In this way, unfortunately, every app has to be viewed as an invasion of privacy. The only solution can be:
– To install as few apps as possible and none at all that do nothing but replace a page visit via the browser.
– Reading the permissions required for each app in the store before installing it and withdrawing it after installation. It is often sufficient to only temporarily assign the rights if you want to use the program. For example, the permission of the navigation app to access the location.
– Regularly check when you last used which app. And then delete those that you rarely or never need from the device.
5. Social Media Apps
Many services in the digital world collect data. However, if there is a business model that deserves the title of ‘better half’, then it is the social media network. Just like your partner, social media has to enquire everything and in fact, knows everything. After all, these portals are just interesting advertising platforms.
They earn their money by collecting user data, analyzing it, and presenting incredibly personalized ads. That may seem trivial, however, considering what Facebook alone knows, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see what impact that can have.
Unfortunately, the best advice is to use these social media networks selectively. Tiktok has recently been under the scanner in India as millions of users uninstalled it and gave the app negative reviews in the stores. It was also because it is considered a Chinese app and the tensions between the two countries have escalated a lot. Upon that data was never considered secure in the hands of a Chinese firm, for example, Huawei.
Even if you botch up the data protection settings and fill out your profiles only incompletely, you leave enough usable information. This only creates the next problem as most social networks have multiple programs to track info. On Facebook that would include WhatsApp and Instagram. This means whoever does without social networks also has to do without many other digital services and many other digital applications.
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When it is your digital presence, you unfortunately always have to reckon with revealing your data and sometimes extremely intimate data. However, since not using it is often not an option in today’s world, one can only adopt the policy of never exchanging comfort for security. Because that is what unites the vast majority of data collectors in the digital world. The apple CEO once said, “If an online service is free, you are not the customer, you are the product”.