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The companies in control of our secret identities

EDRi member Privacy International published a research on ad tech companies' data collection practices which are employed to create an assumed picture of you. The study shows that the profiles created for the data subjects are based on information pieced together from incomplete data and using marketing algorithms. Hence, this data forms an uncanny picture of yourself, one that you may not have voluntarily revealed, a digital shadow over which you have very little practical control.

By Privacy International (PI) (guest author) · February 10, 2021

Your personal data can be collected by companies from many different sources and shaped into a “secret identity”. This is when companies use information about you to assume your personality traits and predict your behaviour, and sell this profile to others. But who are the companies behind this practice?

Technologies and services offer us a lot and can greatly improve our daily lives. But many of the companies who provide them, especially those offering them for free, collect data about you. It might be data you knowingly and willingly share to enjoy the benefits of the service (name, age, email address…) or data that you might not realise you are sharing, like your approximate location through your IP address or your social network identifier or through apps accessing your contacts. Sometimes, companies collect very sensitive information from websites you have visited and interacted with, for example websites about mental health, revealing your state of mind or your diagnosed illness. To make things more complicated, the companies receiving this data aren’t always the ones providing the service, as is the case with third party trackers on websites.

While some of this data, and its collection, may appear harmless to some, what happens behind the scenes is a real source of concern as the data collection is only the first step in a long and opaque process. Ad tech companies combine this information together and create an assumed picture of you, akin to a secret identity. Your personal information can indeed be gathered, cross-referenced and processed to profile you by companies you’ve never heard of. Using the data they collect about you, these companies can infer even more information about your interests, habits, goals, and fears, with variable accuracy.

These profiles reveal parts of yourself that even your most intimate friends might not be aware of. Skeptical? Through submitting data subject access requests (DSARs), PI obtained some of their own profiles and the results were frightening. The data that was received was the equivalent of our entire browsing history and contained detailed characteristics both inferred from this browsing history and obtained from other tracking companies.

Pieced together from incomplete data and using marketing algorithms, this data forms an uncanny picture of yourself, one that you may not have voluntarily revealed, a digital shadow over which you have very little practical control.

Why should you care? Do they really use this data for anything? You can find out by reading this research.

Who are these companies? And where does my data ends up?

Curious about the companies that profile you? PI has produced a case study with ShareThis and AddThis, two companies offering share buttons for website owners who profit from their position to profile visitors across the web.

If you are interested in finding out examples of how this data ends up in the wrong hands, check PI’s case study on location data sold by app tracker.

What you can do

It is easy to feel helpless in the face of the multitude and secrecy of this corporate activity, especially when the names of the companies are unfamiliar and their business activities are complex and confusing.

PI is chipping away at the secrecy and complexity of this industry. Their work started in earnest the day the GDPR came into force in 2018. And you can take action too. Take a look at the legal tools you can use to exercise your rights, and the guides PI has produced to help limit the intrusions into your online activity:

You can also show your discontent with these practices by building barriers against invasive tracking! PI has produced guides to prevent and limit tracking online and on your devices. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to apply a few changes and as a nice bonus, the number of ads you see will fall drastically.