FutureFive New Zealand - Consumer technology news & reviews from the future
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Thu, 23rd May 2019
FYI, this story is more than a year old

A new tool is revealing exactly what sites have a hold on consumers, in terms of the data being collected on users.

With privacy an increasing concern amongst the public, users should be more aware than ever of what personal data companies hold, according to vpnMentor who have developed the tool.

The new tool highlights the data different major websites holds on users, as listed in their privacy policies. With over 7.2 billion accounts held across the services studied, including platforms like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Tinder, the company looked into how many users were aware of the finer details of the privacy policies that many automatically accept.

"In the advent of GDPR and in-depth privacy settings, you would be forgiven for thinking that you have more control over your data than ever. But despite the familiar site message asking if you're willing to accept cookies, many don't realise what this entails, and it can be hard to keep track of what data you''ve given away," says VPNmentor internet security expert Gaya Polat.

Your data, their rules

"While it's unlikely to come as a surprise that sites you've signed up for will hold the details you've given them, for many sites this isn't all they track. With Facebook and Instagram being the biggest offenders, seemingly tracking as much as they can about their users, it's time that we thought twice about what we're accepting within the terms and conditions."

Some of the details tracked include:
Location: Of the 21 services within the study, 18 tracked your current location at all times when using the app. Some of these, such as Tinder, continue to track this even when the app is not in use, while Facebook - Instagram both not only track your location but also the location of businesses and people nearby, as well as saving your home address and your most commonly visited locations.

Your Messages: Think nobody will ever know about you sliding into someone's DMs? Think again. Both Facebook, LinkedIn - Instagram use the information you share on their messaging services to learn more about you, while Twitter and Spotify both openly state they have access to any messages you send on their platforms.

Device Information: Seemingly harmless, but many services and apps track more of your device information than is appears to be needed. Facebook and Instagram, for example, both track your battery level, signal strength, nearby Wi-Fi spots and phone masts, app and file names on your device and more. Meanwhile, Google and Amazon both keep hold of voice recordings from searches and Alexa respectively, and Apple Music confusingly tracks phone calls made and emails sent and received on the devices the service is used on.

No profile? Still a problem

According to the company, even if you don't hold an account with these services, this won't stop your online moves being tracked. Google keeps track of your activity on third party sites that use Google features like adverts, while Facebook partners (an enormous 8.4 million sites across the web) send both them and Instagram data collected through Facebook Business Tools like the Like button, regardless of whether or not you have a Facebook account or are logged in.

"And for those among us who have taken the action to set up the ''Do Not Track'' option offered by some browsers, which was created to stop sites tracking your information, this won't help you either," says Polat.

"Almost no major sites respond to the signal given, instead continuing to track you regardless. In fact, it's not just third-party sites these companies are storing your data from; Facebook also holds any data provided about you from others, including if they upload your contact information without your permission."

"The amount of data held online about users should make them wary about how their personal details are used. While the majority of this data usage is benign or necessary for services to function, knowing which companies hold which data about you is the only way to track your privacy, and how secure you really are," says Polat.

"We recommend always reading the privacy policy to ensure you know what you're agreeing to by signing up, but we hope this project will give something of an insight into what it all entails."