It’s often said that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. And it would be comforting if that was true, but in a world dominated by Big Data, it’s rapidly becoming a quaint myth – and one that is increasingly dangerous to believe.
In reality, bulk data collection by email providers, Google, smartphone apps, smart home technology, credit card companies, car manufacturers, and insurers (to name a few major players in the world of data) is a grave threat to both privacy and liberty.
Governments may seem benign, but flip to forms of totalitarian behavior. Companies may start to find ways of sharing data that benefit themselves while compromising customers’ rights. And all the while, individuals are becoming used to handing over every last piece of information about who they are, who they know, and what they do.
In this article, we’ll look in-depth at how to protect ourselves against Big Data. This isn’t a political manifesto or a tech-heavy manual for hackers or cybersecurity mavens. Instead, we’ll lay out the threats, with responses that ordinary people can use to protect their privacy online. But first, let’s quickly get a handle on the scale of Big Data and the kind of threats it has created.
How Big Data has conquered our lives
The advent of Big Data over the past 10 years has been a historic shift in the way modern societies work. And the scale and speed of that shift has caught even tech-savvy individuals by surprise.
For instance, between 2013 and 2015, more data was generated worldwide than had been created and stored in the whole digital era (starting with the 1970s). That’s a massive change in a short period of time, but it’s one that is very hard to sense on a day to day level.
Nowadays, over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are produced and stored every day, and every individual generates around 1.7MB of data every second they exist. The resources dedicated to analyzing this data mountain have expanded in step, with IBM alone making $2.66 billion in 2017-2018 from its analytics tools.
All of that data helps companies manage their data warehouses, optimize their websites, improve customer service, and understand their users better. In the public sector, data is contributing to medical research efforts, public health campaigns, earthquake detection, and traffic management.
But there’s a dark side to the mass conversion of everyday life to raw data. Take Google, for example. Its use of data is legendary, as is the amount it knows about individual users. From Chrome usage to YouTube videos, where you travel on Maps, Android app usage, and your Gmail contacts book, Google’s tentacles allow it to gather data on ourselves and our contacts which – in some ways – allows it to know us better than we do.
If that data gets into the wrong hands it can be used to blackmail, deny credit, raise health insurance premiums, harass activists, and imprison people based on mistaken identity. It could help campaigns to disenfranchise voters, or spread misinformation about social issues. And above all else, it simply destroys the possibility of privacy. So what can you do to reverse this process?
1. Use secure browsers and search engines
Firstly, privacy-conscious web users should try to avoid Google wherever possible. Chrome may be slick, but it’s a nightmare on the privacy side. There’s no need to go all-in on Tor (although that might be advisable if privacy is your number one concern). Instead, Firefox offers much better privacy than Chrome, so choose that if possible.
It’s also a good idea to switch to secure search engines. These engines don’t keep logs or collect data when queries are made, and some are surprisingly powerful. For instance, Searx basically creates a shield between users and the main Google engine, blocking the search giant’s logging tools.
Be careful, though. Engines like DuckDuckGo promote themselves are privacy-friendly, but actually keep logs. And many rely on advertising which may be based on data collection.
2. Tighten up your app permissions game
The rise of smartphones has more or less tracked the growth of Big Data, and with good reason. A major chunk of the data generated every day comes from smartphone apps that collect data, alongside their core functions.
For example, the FT reported in 2018 on a study of 1 million Android apps. Researchers found that a staggering 90% of those apps delivered data to Google Analytics, while 20% of apps were sharing data with over 20 “partners.”
Even VPN providers can be part of this behavior – especially free privacy apps which rely on advertising to generate revenue. In fact, any Android app that uses a “freemium” model is probably harvesting your data, so think about paying extra for more watertight versions.
However, it’s often possible to limit data leakage from free apps, by tweaking the permissions you grant them. Don’t choose “share your contacts” options, as this is an open door to the collection of private data. And check for permissions to access your camera roll, video camera, location, calendar, motion sensors, speech recognition tools, and social media (the list goes on, and on).
3. Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) wherever you go
If you want to use search engines anonymously, one simple method is to scramble your IP address and encrypt your traffic. Until relatively recently, both operations were beyond the reach of most web users. However, one fortunate consequence of the explosion of Big Data has been the rise of VPN technology, which marries both IP anonymization and data encryption.
For those who don’t know already, VPNs create encrypted tunnels that wrap data in impenetrable packages (well, unless you have access to incredibly powerful processing technology). The data is then routed through servers located around the world, which assign local IP addresses, effectively giving users a fresh online identity.
If you install a VPN browser extension in Chrome or Firefox, it can go a long way to obstructing data collection about what you search for, and the same applies to using VPNs with Android phones. It’s not a magic bullet, and poor VPNs can be self-defeating due to IP leakage, but anyone with privacy concerns should use a VPN as a matter of course.
For an industry-leading VPN provider, you can’t do much better than NordVPN. Based in Panama, it’s quick, has thousands of worldwide servers, isn’t too expensive, and takes privacy very seriously. Check out this NordVPN review for more information.
4. Learn ways to use social media without handing over personal data
Google isn’t the only data-hungry corporation to worry about. In fact, Facebook is arguably more notorious, with its CEO Mark Zuckerberg having been hauled before Congress to confirm that his company doesn’t use apps to listen to smartphone conversations.
Facebook makes $16 billion per quarter from advertising on its various platforms, and it does so by targeting ads based on user data. Over the years, it has used multiple ways to harvest data, including your contacts, the content of all of your messages, your likes, any audio recordings you receive or send, your location, devices, and even the footage captured by webcams.
What can you do about that? Well, many security experts would simply say “log off” and there’s a lot of sense in that. But if you need to stay on the social network, there are some measures you can take.
Remove any third-party apps with links to Facebook via the “apps and websites” section on your Settings tab. Use secure browsers to block tracking cookies issued by Facebook or Instagram (or the handy “Facebook Container” extension on Firefox). And use a VPN to anonymize your location.
None of this will totally eliminate data collection, but they can make you a much harder target, and for everyday users, that should be reassuring.
5. Be very skeptical about smart technology
Finally, we need to talk about smart technology. Now, it’s pretty clear that helpers like Google Assistant and Alexa aren’t going away. People value their abilities and the way they sync up with everyday devices too much to throw them away. So what can you do to make them more secure?
Sometimes, toggling app settings can make a difference. Alexa’s default setting is to collect endless amounts of voice data for Amazon’s staff to sift through, but by logging onto the Alexa app, users can stop this right away. The situation is similar with Google Home. In that case, users can head to their Google Account and use the “Activity Controls” section to toggle off “Voice and Audio Activity.”
Those quick fixes aren’t going to stop Alexa or Google Home beaming data about your inquiries, purchases, song choices, or device connections to corporate data centers. However, they will provide basic privacy protection, and that’s a start.
Always factor privacy into your digital behavior
What’s the takeaway from this quick excursion into the ways we can respond to Big Data? The aim here wasn’t to panic people about what companies are doing with data, but to empower users to take control of the data they provide.
The rise of Big Data has been so swift, and the potential abuses are so profound, that we should all be guarding ourselves and finding ways to control exactly what information we hand over. The fact is that we don’t, and that’s bad news for personal privacy and, potentially, the future of democracy.
However, from private search engines and VPNs to secure browsers, app permissions, and social media privacy settings, there are ways to respond. Mix that with a little more restraint about exactly how much you share, and you’ll be much better situated as Big Data continues to expand – which it surely will.