Personal data collection has made it into the news with stories like Cambridge Analytica harvesting Facebook user data or the Equifax breach. And policies like the EU’s GDPR and the CCPA Do Not Sell rule have really thrown companies for a loop.
As Dara Tarkowski and Martin Tully discussed on the podcast Tech on Reg, the definition of “personal data” has evolved. In turn, it’s put many website owners (including myself) in a scramble to ensure compliance.
You hear about all this as a member of the public. But in your daily life, how much does it change your behavior?
So here’s a crash course in why companies collect your data, and how you can make the best decisions about it.
How Do Websites Collect My Data?
This about it this way: you’re walking around downtown because you want some new shoes. And you find a store that sells shoes.
At the entrance, an employee says to you “Hi! We’re so glad you want to check out our store. Can our associate, Cookie, follow your experience in our shop so that we can make sure you have an even better experience in the future? And then can we see where you go afterwards? And can we tell our business partners about it, too?”
You’d probably say “No thanks.”
So why do you allow companies to do this to you on the internet?
Instead of having a person follow you around the website, it stores cookies in your browser to track your behavior. Sometimes those cookies only follow you on that particular site, but other ones may follow you elsewhere.
To be fair, exploring the internet is a completely different experience that an in-person interaction. As a result, we have these incredible technologies that can improve customer experience, which can be really beneficial to everyone.
But is it worth giving away your personal data for?
Why You Should Consent to Companies Collecting Your Data
When you need answers to your questions, it’s tempting to agree to all cookies in order to access a website.
And those websites certainly count on it. Hell, some even have the tenacity to ask if they can send you push notifications before you’ve even read the article.
So why would you say yes to their requests if they haven’t proven their value?
Search engines work in a similar way. There’s a famous, informal experiment where this guy asked his Twitter followers to search for a specific recipe on Google. (I don’t recall all the details, but if you know which story I’m talking about, please let me know in the comments!)
He then asked people to click on the first link, click the back button, and then click on his recipe, which was ranked second in the search results. After a few hours, his link was ranked number one.
This is what Google’s algorithm (supposedly) learned from this experiment:
- The first result matched the search query
- After visiting the first result, the user didn’t find the answer satisfactory
- The user went back to the search results page
- The user found the second result more helpful
After enough people behaved this way, Google changed its rankings in order to be more useful to visitors.
This example is more about tricking an algorithm than data collection, but it’s still an applicable example. By letting companies track your online behavior, they see how people react to the search results, and then make it easier for future users to find the information they’re looking for. Because ultimately, that’s what the online experience is about: making the search for answers easy.
But what can make this complicated today is that the most popular search engine is more than just a search engine. And because of that, Google can collect that data and use it in other aspects of their services.
That’s when you have to decide whether you prefer convenience or privacy – it can difficult to strike a balance when using any of Google’s services.
In short, I recommend that you give your personal data to companies that you do business with because it can help them improve their services.
For example, when banks started building online banking solutions and apps, they learned that the most common action people do is check their balance. USAA was one of the first banks not just to have an online banking option, but to discover this behavior.
Nowadays, this seems obvious. But think about it: how easy was it to check your bank account balance without a computer or smart phone? How did you know whether a payment cleared or bounced?
Once we had the capability to know what our bank balance was at any given moment, it became the most used and most important part of any digital banking experience.
And banks learned that information from tracking data and behavior. They saw that their customers were logging in multiple times a day, but not to make an appointment or look at mortgage options or pay bills.
Now, after you log into your account, your bank balance appears once you successfully log into your dashboard. You don’t have to click a button or navigate anywhere to find your current balance.
By tracking your behavior and comparing it with every other user’s behavior, your bank learns what services you’re looking for. And if people are searching for or clicking on the same things, they can develop a way to make that information more readily accessible.
And once you have that information at hand, you might start searching for mortgage options because you’re saving for a house. If the bank can track that behavior, they can reach out and offer you services that fit your needs.
Of course, this all assumes that your bank collects your data and then puts it to good use.
Income Streams for Small Websites
Another reason to allow a website access to your personal data is so that they can make money from it. It sounds sinister, but let me explain.
Let’s say there’s a blogger that you really like. If they do it for a living, they likely depend on affiliate marketing links for their income. And in order to profit from their partnership with websites like Amazon or TripAdvisor, your favorite blogger needs to track whether you click their link to visit the external website. (Remember Cookie the store associate?)
Furthermore, that same blogger can use your data to learn whether you’re visiting all the pages they created on their website. If it turns out that users visit their articles about traveling to Greece, but not their articles about cruises, then the blogger knows to create less content about cruises.
I, for example, use visitor data to figure out how many people visit my website every day. I also use that data to see which are my top blog posts. Then I can write similar articles that interest my audience. I also use that data to learn whether people are looking at my services page.
Ultimately, I use that data to improve my website and create useful content (or, at least, I try).
If you allow the website to track how you explore it, then the blogger can learn what terms you’re searching for. And, just like the bank, if they can see that visitors are searching for the same things, they can create a button or link on their homepage to help users navigate to their destination much quicker.
Why You Shouldn’t Consent for Companies to Collect Your Data
If I don’t see a worthwhile reason for the website to collect my personal data, I always reject cookies that aren’t necessary.
What has the company done to earn it? I haven’t even read the article yet! I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions when confronted with the cookie consent banner:
- Is this a trustworthy site?
- Why do they need my data?
- Do I feel they deserve access to it?
These are the questions I ask myself because I believe they’re important. When I see how many vendors and partners a website will share my data with, I want the choice to opt out. And if the website doesn’t give me that option, then I don’t usually consent.
If you’re not sure how you would answer these questions, here’s another way to think about it: do you want to give that company your money? And do you feel they can provide value to your life?
If the answer to both of those questions isn’t a confident yes, then you may want to opt out of sharing your data with them.
Why Does It Matter?
Using the internet has become such an integral part of our daily existence that we rarely stop to think about the information we share (voluntarily or otherwise). Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like we have a choice to get through a basic interaction without volunteering some extent of personal information.
And I believe we need to be more thoughtful about it because companies profit off the data that they glean from us.
You may feel that, because your data doesn’t cost you anything, you’re comfortable with companies using it without your informed consent.
But consider Henrietta Lacks.
While seeking treatment for cancer, doctors took and stored samples of her cells without her consent and later profited from their magnificent ability to replicate themselves. She and her family never received any payments, nor did she ever receive the life-saving treatment she desperately needed.
To be clear, Lacks suffered a gross injustice due to a perverted sense of entitlement and racism. I recall her story here because we have similar relationships with our DNA and data. Neither costs us anything to create. But in the hands of a company with greedy or malicious intent, we allow others to profit from our existence and behavior.
The argument has been made, of course, that because of Lacks’s “contribution,” doctors created a vaccine for polio. And that’s an incredible achievement. But until recently, that achievement was not attributed to Lacks in any way except for the term HeLa cells.
Similarly, companies can argue that, without your data, their products would not be as great as they are today.
But did you consent to that?
Demand Better Behavior by Safeguarding Your Personal Data
The reasons you choose to share your data are personal. But the important thing is that you make an informed choice for yourself.
Because we can’t hold the goliaths of the internet accountable if we aren’t making good choices.
Did you find this article helpful? I’d love to hear from you!