Sometimes apps collect information that’s unexpected - for example, most torch apps track your location. If apps ask to access your contacts, photos or microphone, they may keep this information.
Even if you don’t let them access your contacts, they may get access anyway, if your friends allow access to contacts. So, our data travels between devices and apps.
Companies like WhatsApp and Instagram collect data about us from other companies they do business with – like the App Store or Google Play. Apps often keep working and collect data even when they’re not being used. Data also travels to companies we’ve never used! It’s hard to know where our data ends up or how long it stays there, even after we have deleted our original profile.
So, how does this happen? When we visit a website or use an app, small pieces of data (cookies) are placed on our device to track and record what we do. Some cookies are functional – for example, they remember our username and password. Other cookies help the company analyse its users and make services more profitable. There are also ‘third party cookies’ – these are used to sell our data to companies who want to advertise their products to us. For example, Spotify lets over 60 companies place cookies on your device, including Google, Amazon and Facebook. In this way, companies can track us even when we don’t use their services.
So, how can our data be used? Our data can be copied, analysed, stored, combined with other data, shared and sold to others – advertisers, companies, governments. Some of the companies who track us are ‘data brokers’ – their business is to buy and sell data. Data brokers collect data from different sites and then ‘profile’ individual users – they put each of us into groups with other people like us. Then companies can work out things about us that we haven’t shared.
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