05.07.2019 change 05.07.2019

Expert: Summer is the "harvest season" for data brokers; watch what you post online

Photo: Fotolia Photo: Fotolia

When you publish a post or photo on social media, or do an online test or quiz, you often unwittingly "sell" information about yourself. That information is used by data brokers, who build profiles of Internet users and sell them to companies and even politicians.

Information about us is currently one of the most valuable commodities on the market, and the acquisition of personal data has become the main goal of data brokers. "These data allow advertisers to tailor the offer to users, but also manipulate users and convince them to make decisions that are often wrong. During the holidays and free time, we are even more exposed" - emphasises Dr. Artur Modliński, head of the Center for Research on Artificial Intelligence and Cyber Communications of the University of Lodz.

The basic activity of data brokers is the acquisition (generating and buying), synthesizing and reselling data about users. Their task is to reproduce digital profiles of people based on their online and real world activities.

Dr. Modlinski emphasises that according to a Clearcode report prepared a few years ago, data brokers could have up to 1500 different pieces of information about an individual - including religion, sexual orientation, routine shopping, political views and opinions on global warming.

The most interesting "units" of information include Facebook activity, average alcohol consumption and the frequency of using lotteries. "It`s no wonder that by adding marital status, place of residence, ways of spending free time or the number of children, advertisers know what products and in what circumstances they should offer the given recipient" - adds the expert in the analysis made available to the media.

How do data brokers obtain data? According to Dr. Modlinski, unfortunately we ourselves and our carelessness on the web are still the main source of information about us. For example, we reveal our preferences by doing numerous online tests and quizzes. An example of this are polls of political preferences, in which we directly declare voting for a particular party, or so-called comprehensive preference tests.

"Under the pretext of supporting you in your political decisions, you are invited to do a quiz, in which you answer questions about family policy, foreign policy, attitude towards environmental protection or religion. At the end you are asked to provide an e-mail address, to which the test result will be sent. This way, in most cases unwittingly, you can help to complete information about yourself, and brokers then resell it to advertisers" - writes the cyber communication expert.

Another example of obtaining information about us is the analysis of posts published on social media. According to the author of the book "Hello Word" Hannah Fray, analysing a small number of your posts or comments is enough for a company to assess how neurotic, introverted or open to new experiences you are. This information is also added to your virtual profile.

These two sources - the expert emphasises - are sufficient to assess whether an individual is an extrovert, an atheist, voting for a liberal party, or an introvert who likes to go to the cinema and avoids voting in elections.

"If a party wants to attract non-voters, this tells them that they should looks for non-voters in cinemas and that non-voters are introverts. And since they are introverts, it`s better to give them a leaflet than to talk to them directly. In this way, advertisers can spend less money on attracting customers or voters and plan more precise campaigns" - he adds.

In his opinion, the upcoming summer holiday season increases the activity of data brokers both online and in the real world. By checking in, sharing photos of products or specific places, Internet users allow brokers to obtain key information for advertisers - where to place an ad, which consumer may try and like their product during holidays, and, for example, whether there will be more liberals in Kołobrzeg or in Ustka.

According to Dr. Artur Modliński, although more and more consumers are aware of the need to protect data, they are less vigilant during holidays, which is mainly associated with the desire to share pleasant memories on social media, greater openness and wanting to have some rest from making informed decisions.

"And although filters and recommendation systems can help us make decisions in line with our preferences, excessive +online exhibitionism+ exposes us to manipulation by dishonest companies and politicians" - warns the head of the Center for Research on Artificial Intelligence and Cyber Communications of the University of Lodz.

And the best evidence of the scale of this business are data on the revenues of data broker companies. The statistics cited by the Clearcode expert show that their turnover in 2015 alone reached USD 200 billion. And they grow every year. According to other data, in 2018 a single company from this industry had 10,000 information units on 2.5 billion people.

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