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What Personal Data Do Companies Track?

Private tech companies gather tremendous amounts of user data. These companies can afford to let you use social media platforms free of charge because it’s paid for by your data, attention, and time.  

Big tech derives most of its profits by selling your attention to advertisers — a well-known business model. Various documentaries (like Netflix’s “The Social Dilemma”) have attempted to get to the bottom of the complex algorithms that big tech companies employ to mine and analyze user data for the benefit of third-party advertisers.  

This article will help you better understand what information is being collected by tech companies, how it’s being used, and how you can protect your privacy online.   

What information can companies collect?

Tech companies benefit from personal information by being able to provide personalized ads. When you click “yes” at the end of a terms and conditions agreement found on some web pages, you may be allowing the companies to collect the following data:  

  • Personal data. This includes identity-related information like your name, gender, Social Security number, and device-related information like IP address, web browser cookies, and device IDs. Personal data is usually collected to classify users into different demographics based on relevant parameters. This helps advertisers analyze what sections of the audience interact with their ads and what they can do to cater to their target audience.  
  • Usage data. Your interactions with a business’s website, text messages, emails, paid ads, and other online activities are recorded to build an accurate consumer profile. This consumer profile is used to determine and predict what kind of content (including ads) you are more likely to interact with and for how long.  
  • Behavioral data. Purchase histories, repeated actions, time spent, movement and navigation on the platform, and other types of qualitative data are covered under behavioral data. This helps platforms determine your “favorite” purchases or interactions so they can suggest other similar content/products.  
  • Attitudinal data. Companies measure brand and customer experiences using data on consumer satisfaction, product desirability, and purchase decisions. Marketing agencies use this data for direct consumer research and creative analysis.  

For someone unfamiliar with privacy issues, it is important to understand the extent of big tech’s tracking and data collection. Once these companies collect data, all this information can be supplied to third-party businesses or used to improve user experience.  

The problem with this is that big tech has blurred the line between collecting customer data and violating user privacy in some cases. While tracking what content you interact with can be justified under the garb of personalizing the content you see, big tech platforms have been known to go too far. Prominent social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn have faced past legal trouble for accessing personal user data like private messages and saved photos. 

How do companies use the information you provide

The information you provide helps build an accurate character profile and turns it into knowledge that gives actionable insights to businesses. Private data usage can be classified into three cases: selling it to data brokers, using it to improve marketing, or enhancing customer experience.  

To sell your info to data brokers

Along with big data, another industry has seen rapid growth: data brokers. Data brokers buy, analyze, and package your data. Companies that collect large amounts of data on their users stand to profit from this service. Selling data to brokers is an important revenue stream for big tech companies 

Advertisers and businesses benefit from increased information on their consumers, creating a high demand for your information. The problem here is that companies like Facebook and Alphabet (Google’s parent company) have been known to mine massive amounts of user data for the sake of their advertisers.  

To personalize marketing efforts

Marketing can be highly personalized thanks to the availability of large amounts of consumer data. Tracking your response to marketing campaigns can help businesses alter or improve certain aspects of their campaign to drive better results.  

The problem is that most AI-based algorithms are incapable of assessing when they should stop collecting or using your information. After a point, users run the risk of being constantly subjected to intrusive ads and other unconsented marketing campaigns that pop up frequently.  

To cater to the customer experience

Analyzing consumer behavior through reviews, feedback, and recommendations can help improve customer experience. Businesses have access to various facets of data that can be analyzed to show them how to meet consumer demands. This could help improve any part of a consumer’s interaction with the company, from designing special offers and discounts to improving customer relationships.  

For most social media platforms, the goal is to curate a personalized feed that appeals to the users and allows them to spend more time on the app. When left unmonitored, the powerful algorithms behind these social media platforms can repeatedly subject you to the same kind of content from different creators.  

Which companies track the most information?

Here are the big tech companies that collect and mine the most user data 

  • Google. Google is the most avid big tech data miner currently on the internet because the search engine deals almost exclusively with user data. Google tracks and analyzes everything from your Gmail and calling history (for VoLTE calls) to your Chrome browsing preferences through third-party cookies 
  • Facebook. Meta’s Facebook collects phone numbers, personal messages, public comments, and metadata from all of your photos and videos. Facebook primarily uses this data to fuel its demographic-based targeted ad mechanisms.  
  • Amazon. Amazon has recently admitted to storing many user data points, including phone numbers, credit card information, usernames, passwords, and even Social Security numbers. Amazon also stores information about your search terms and previously bought products.  
  • Twitter. Platforms like Twitter employ a “family of apps” technique to gather sensitive user data. While these platforms openly collect and mine user data themselves, they also collect information from app networks (like Twitter’s MoPub or Google’s AdMob) that include several other third-party apps. These apps choose to partner with tech giants for better profits.  
  • Apple. While much better than its competitors, Apple still mines a considerable amount of user data. While Apple’s systems allow users to control their privacy settings, Apple gives all of its users’ information to Apple’s iOS-based advertisement channels. The iPhone App Store is another place where user data is exclusively used to create customized user experiences. 
  • Microsoft. Microsoft primarily collects device-related data like system configurations, system capabilities, IP addresses, and port numbers. It also harvests your regular search and query data to customize your search options and make for a better user experience.  

Discover how McAfee can help protect your identity online 

Users need a comprehensive data privacy solution to tackle the rampant, large-scale data mining carried out by big tech platforms. While targeted advertisements and easily found items are beneficial, many of these companies collect and mine user data through several channels simultaneously, exploiting them in many different ways.  

It’s important to make sure your personal information is protected. Protection solutions like McAfee’s Personal Data Cleanup feature can help. With this feature, our teams scour the web for traces of your personal information and assist in getting it removed to enhance your online privacy.  

McAfee’s Total Protection provides antivirus software for all of your digital devices and a secure VPN connection to avoid exposure to malicious third parties while browsing the internet. Our identity monitoring and personal data removal solutions further remove gaps in your devices’ security systems.  

With our airtight data protection and custom guidance (complete with a protection score for each platform and tips to keep you safer), you can be sure that your internet identity is protected.