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If the product's free then you're the product

Would you argue that the best things in life are free? Or do you take the view that nothing in life is free?

Whichever side you are positioning yourself on, it’s difficult to escape the evidence that, in the internet age, when we use free applications, platforms, and services, often the trade off is that we ‘pay’ the price of using these services by allowing them to harvest our personal data. As Andrew Lewis (screen-name: blue_beetle) commented on a MetaFilter post about the changes to the internet news sharing website Digg back in 2010:

If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.

You don’t have to do much searching to find examples of companies building enormous databases filled with billions of our interactions, searches, website visits, purchases and other personal information. Sometimes they will be trading this information to advertising and marketing agencies to ‘personalise’ our online experience and encourage sales based on our previous behaviours; at other times they will be using this information to inform the development of their products based on those behaviours.

Here are just some of the examples of how applications are sharing and using your data:

Even a privacy application like Ghostery, which we mentioned in the last step, may be making money out of your data in some way.

You may consider it a fait accompli, then, that to make use of new technologies you have to forfeit your privacy, but one might take a more positive view: that we can still protect our privacy if we are savvy about reading the terms and conditions, especially the privacy policy. If we are more aware of how applications are using our data, we can then make an informed choice about whether we are happy with what they are doing or whether we instead need to select another product. Often we can even change the settings in products (as we mentioned in the last step) to prevent out data being shared.

Changing settings and selecting products

If we can protect our privacy by being more informed about how to change the settings, or by selecting applications that won’t harvest our data, then it is important that we are aware of how to do this. That might not be so straightforward: to reference what Mike Dunn said last week: “we don’t know what we don’t know!” Often we are unaware of how our data is being used and how we might prevent it. For example, it is possible to turn off Microsoft’s keystroke tracking or WhatsApp’s sharing? There are search engines that don’t track you (an example we mentioned last week is DuckDuckGo), but if we don’t know this then we can’t do anything about it.

In the interests of raising awareness about privacy setting and applications that don’t gather or share data, let’s share, instead, our hints and tips, do’s and don’ts, and our knowledge of secure applications.

You can do this by contributing to our open Padlet board of hints and tips for protecting your privacy. Please add links to useful applications, guidance on changing privacy settings, or your own instructions on how to change those settings.

See our help on how to use Padlet should you need it.

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This article is from the free online course:

Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society

University of York

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