Mitigate harm tied to digital profile harvest


It may not be possible for internet users to be opaque to data harvesting. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Data broker companies harvest internet user’s data and make inferences about the user’s life. The company can ascertain details about the user such as their behaviour, socio-economic class, marital status, family composition, religious views and political opinions.

These digital profiles are packaged, and sold to the highest bidder. Data brokers do not interact directly with the ‘subject’ so internet users are not aware that their data is been monitored and sold.

The danger with digital profiles is, they can be used to filter bubble whereby, the internet users only encounter content that conforms and reinforces their preferences.

Through this advertisers and political campaigners manage to isolate the user from competing products and differing opinions.

Cambridge Analytica, a data broker, is accused of collecting data about internet users, profiling them and using targeted social media messaging to influence voting patterns in Kenya and America.

Another danger of digital profiling is the inferences made from the data collected may be inaccurate, yet the ‘subject’ has no way of knowing how to correct the information. Investors and lenders could use a digital profile to discern an entrepreneur’s values, morals, spending habits or credit worthiness.

There exists the risk that an entrepreneur could be denied funding based on inferences about him/her that are wrong. Digital profiles can also be used by recruiters in screening employment candidates. If a candidates profile is misleading, the recruiter will make the wrong decision.

According to Wikipedia, there are 3,500 to 4,000 data brokers worldwide. This is an inherent security risk. If these companies’ databases were hacked, it could expose digital profiles of millions of people. The data could be used for cybercrimes such as identity theft, cyber extortion, public shaming or corporate espionage.

Data brokers have various ways of anonymously collecting information such as, the use of third party cookies. Cookies are information concerning a user’s preferences on a website. A third party cookie is one that does not originate from the website owner but is set by a third party. A data broker can embed third party cookies in millions of websites.

Users are identified and recorded whenever they visit sites. Even if users do not use their real names while on the website, it is possible for a third party tracker, using algorithms and statistical similarity to match a user’s browsing history with their social media account and discern their identity.

It may not be possible for internet users to be opaque to data harvesting.

However, there are steps users can take such as being more responsible about what they share on the internet, especially on social media.

Blocking third party cookies on their browser and logging off social media sites while browsing. Also, beware of free digital services like apps and online games that could be conduits for data harvesting.

Turn off apps unnecessary access to personal data such as contacts, messages, location and photos.

The writer is a certified systems auditor.