1. What data do we leave behind while surfing the web and using social media?
  2. How do algorithms draw conclusions about us?
  3. Do social media really listen in on our conversations in order to target us with ads?
  4. How safe is GPS for us?
  5. Are public networks safe? Should I use it?
  6. What are other negative aspects?
  7. And what about positive aspects?
  8. Do IT platforms protect user data?
  9. Is it possible to leave zero digital footprints?

What data do we leave behind while surfing the web and using social media?

Every time you do anything on the internet you leave a trail behind you: you visited a website, entered a request, clicked on certain sections, navigated through the pages, and spent a specific amount of time on each. All these actions can be represented as data. Most often, this data is in tabular form and contains a minimum amount of information, for example, user ID, time of visiting the website’s section, the amount of time spent there, etc.

How do algorithms draw conclusions about us? 

How can you tell if someone is wealthy? Is it about the number of trips they’ve been on, the kind of grocery stores they go to or what they buy there? Maybe it has something to do with their choice of restaurants? Or whether or not they have kids? Do they have a car? What kind? And how much do they pay for it? All this information can be used as search and social media attributes. The viewing history may indicate the level of income not directly but indirectly. Purchase data can provide insight into the average monthly spending. Search queries will also differ: some are looking for a loan, while others – for ways to grow their business. Simply put, algorithms use a wide range of indirect descriptions, thus trying to build a user profile.

Do social media really listen in on our conversations in order to target us with ads?

Hardly anyone has insights of such major social platforms as Facebook and Instagram, so it’s impossible to say what’s going on there. However, you can try to talk to your smart speaker or your phone’s assistant. What do you think of its work rate? How quickly does the device understand you and react to your actions? So far, this technology isn’t perfect and it’s impossible to simultaneously listen to millions of people, analyze what they say, and draw conclusions useful for ads. Speech recognition hasn't reached such heights. It might also be that large corporations keep their breakthrough in secret. But most likely, we are not there yet.

How safe is GPS for us?

Geotagging is good for displaying ads. For example, if you use a navigator, while driving from home to work and back, then it can offer you location-based ads – a new restaurant or a yoga studio near you. But if it bothers you, you can turn GPS off.

Are public networks safe? Should I use it?

It’s better to avoid using public networks. The reason is that this data is certainly used by someone but we won’t find out until it causes harm. For instance, no one knows who has our phone numbers that we often use for registration on free outlets. And then we wonder why we received calls and unwanted offers from strange numbers.

What are other negative aspects?

On social networks, you often come across ads saying “Do you live near … metro station? Then this ad is for you!”. This puts users in a vulnerable position and shows that their every move is traced. At the same time, IT companies never ask consent to the processing of such information and whether users want to interact with advertisers in such a way or not.

And what about positive aspects?

Online maps, for example, allow you to receive traffic updates on jams, accidents, street closures, etc. It's only possible because of the data collected automatically and in real time. Navigators study the speed of vehicles, traffic jams, and the current number of cars on the road.

Do IT platforms protect user data?

It’s hardly possible to find a one-stop shop for information. Such large companies as VK or Yandex don’t just store data on servers. To access it, an employee must have certain competencies, many access levels controlled by other people and even sign a number of non-disclosure documents. So, you can be relieved: not everyone can see your data. You can use a special service to find out about the capabilities of public pages on VK or even disable personalized ads or customize them on Google.

Is it possible to leave zero digital footprints?

You need to understand that it’s impossible to stay completely anonymous on one platform or another. Even if you don’t share your real name, place of residence, and date of birth, there will still be your search history, as well as used IP addresses, news you’ve read, public pages, and groups on social media. Of course, there is now a broad choice of anonymous browsing networks (eg. the Brave browser or the DuckDuckGo search engine) but they aren’t as easy-to-use as we think. So, every time you think about protecting your data, you should be ready to compromise.
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