The Growing Need for Online Privacy in the Digital Age

Take steps to limit your online data

In this digital wild west era, online privacy has become increasingly important for businesses and individuals alike. With so much of our personal information accessible online, it’s essential to protect our data from prying eyes. But, as the digital age progresses, it seems that more people are regularly willing to sacrifice their privacy in order to access the convenience of digital services. The most obvious example of this is social media; these platforms present a easy way to stay in touch with friends and family, and to connect with new people. Individuals are quick to post personal information on platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram etc. without giving thought to their online privacy. By revealing too much private information, they run the real risk of identity theft or other online security threats. 

My issue, perhaps a little surprisingly for a marketer, centres on the amount of data that large online companies are collecting about their customers. For instance, Google and Facebook are collecting copious amounts of data about their users for advertising purposes. This information is often used to personalise ads and targeted marketing campaigns, but it does mean that companies are holding data about individuals that can be used for any purpose.

As we embed ourselves further into this digital jungle life, the need for online privacy is increasingly important. With the unstoppable spread of social media, online shopping, and other digital activities, the amount of data that is collected by companies on the Internet of Never-ending Novelty, about their users is growing exponentially! While this data can be used for marketing purposes, many are concerned about how it is used and how it affects their online privacy. In recent years, companies have become super sophisticated in their ability to harvest and exploit customer data. From tracking browsing habits to collecting personal information, companies are able to create detailed profiles of their users. This data is then used to target individuals with tailored ads, offers, and promotions to fit their browsing habits. While this can be beneficial to consumers, at the same time, the amount of data that is being collated is becoming increasingly controversial. I feel unease that companies are greedily collecting more data than they need, or that the data has potential to be used in unethical ways. Another concern is that companies are not adequately protecting the data they collect, leaving it vulnerable to data breaches and cyberattacks. 

The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in data harvesting is the norm. AI algorithms can sift through monumental amounts of data to extract useful insights and help companies target their customers super efficiently, but will the phenomenal AI capabilities and desire by companies for complete customer profiling lead to more loss of privacy and an increase in surveillance?  I am aware of the growing need for online privacy and the controversy surrounding data harvesting, and  by the nature of my job I know about the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Legislated in 2018, it is a law established by the EU to protect customers' personal data. Companies must comply with this law or face hefty fines - so it is important for them to understand their obligations and take steps to ensure their data-harvesting practices are compliant. The GDPR provides users with a number of rights such as the right to access their data, the right to be forgotten, the right to object to processing, and the right to data portability.

When visiting a website for the first time, the reason you get a pop-up box asking are you okay with cookies is down to the regulations set out by GDPR. However, according to research by Ofcom (2019), only 13% of the UK population are knowledgeable about cookies. The study found that only 4% of people fully understand what cookies are and how they are used, while 9% have a basic understanding. Additionally, the research found that knowledge of cookies is particularly low among younger people, with only 9% of 25-34 year olds having a good grasp of cookies.

Cookies are small pieces of data that are stored in a user’s browser and can be used to track their browsing habits. While some cookies are necessary for a website to function properly, others can be used to collect data about a user’s browsing habits and target them with tailored ads. I would always advocate for users to only agree to minimal cookies as opposed to accepting all cookies. By agreeing to minimal cookies, users are taking an active role in limiting the amount of data that is collected on them. This can help to protect privacy and reduce those annoying targeted ads.

Bona fide websites do provide users with the option to opt-out of cookies, but it is often hidden in the settings menu. Therefore, users will need to take a moment to find the option and click the appropriate buttons to opt-out. Whilst, opting out of cookies does not guarantee complete privacy, (for example their browsing habits may still be tracked by other means, such as through server logs or tracking pixels), it is still a worthwhile habit to adopt. Services that have the most stringent rules about GDPR include healthcare, banking, and insurance. These services require customers to provide sensitive information and therefore must take extra steps to ensure that this data is fortified.

It is worth noting that since the introduction of the GDPR five years ago, there have been several cases of British companies being fined for failing to comply with the law on cookies. One famous case is that of *Flybe, which was fined £70,000 for failing to provide customers with information about the cookies and use of personal data.

Source: *ICO’s Annual Report for 2019.

Stay secure on the superhighway of surprises - opting out of data-harvesting, understanding cookies and GDPR.

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