Man interacting with a futuristic holographic privacy interface.

Over the past few years, we, the public, have become increasingly aware of how our data is stored and used against us. During the early 2000s, the technology quickly advanced with the rise of smartphones, Apple and 3G. We were too caught up in enjoying new technology to understand the sinister impact it was having on our lives and the world around us. As social media has soared in popularity, with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter leading the charge, data has become the most valuable commodity in the modern world. In the early ages of social media, users did not think twice about having personal profiles be fully public or tagging their location regularly; all of this information could be used to Facebook's advantage. As a society, we now have a much better understanding of our privacy rights, but there still is a long way to go before transparency around our data is achieved.

In 2017, Facebook was embroiled in one of many scandals regarding personal data and security breaches. ‘Emma’s Diary’, a parenting group and website on Facebook, innocently began offering parenting tips online. Users were encouraged to sign up for the Emma’s Diary mailing list, after which they would receive free nappies. However, in exchange for nappies, members unknowingly consented to their data being sold to third-party companies. That data was then sold on by Experian, a data broker, which extracts personal data and sells it to those who want it. Experian sold the data from Emma's Diary to political parties who were looking to learn and understand the behaviours of new parents. Data brokerage has been referred to as the ‘new oil’, as such personal data can dramatically further any company's interests.

Our personal data is not only sold by social media websites; any company which collects data can profit from it. One company that hugely benefits from the information of its customers is Tesco. The Tesco Clubcard scheme offers discounts to members, allowing shoppers to build loyalty points and receive vouchers for in-store discounts. The scheme is a particularly lucrative form of cash flow for the supermarket giant, earning roughly £53 million a year from selling information on how 16 million Clubcard users spend in-store. Whilst Clubcard data might not seem like the most interesting information, there is much to learn about a person’s life through what they buy and when they buy it. One key example of this is when a woman is expecting a child. When women begin purchasing baby-related products, Tesco now knows they are expecting a child. To companies that sell baby-related products, this information is gold dust.

So how can we better protect our data? One easy way we can stop companies following our activity online is by taking a few extra seconds to reject cookies when we visit a new site. Whilst browsing, it may be frustrating; immediately accepting cookies can give that website, and sometimes third parties, consent to use our personal data. This has been made a little easier with the new Apple iPhone update of asking apps not to track activity across other apps. Purchasing phone security software or using a VPN can also help us reclaim our online data. However, large companies like Google and Facebook still have a long way to go before consumer faith is restored in that user data is not being used against us.