When we use the internet in any capacity, it’s almost inevitable that we will sacrifice some of our data or a piece of information about us.

What happens to this data once we have given it away is often overlooked by internet users, but it’s important to understand how and why companies acquire small pieces of information about you online. The methods these third party organisations use to gather this data is legal and above board, and (more often than not) the way that it’s used is honest. Occasionally though, data is mishandled, leaving users vulnerable.

Data Leak

WHSmith were left in an embarrassing position recently when 22 customers’ private information was emailed out to thousands of subscribers. This came from a broken “contact us” form on the WHSmith website. Those affected by the data leak had filled in the form with their information, and after pressing send saw the form sent out to thousands of magazine subscribers listed on the WHSmith database. I-Subscribe, the 3rd party company responsible for the magazine subscriptions were apparently responsible for the bug, however WHSmith also share the blame as they were accountable for their customers' data.

Instances like this are unexpected, and for customers, unavoidable in some respects. When you fill in an online form, it is assumed that your information is safe and the systems being used online are secure. In other words, there are no precautions that those customers could have taken to prevent the data leak from happening.

Dusting For Prints

Whenever you browse the internet, you leave a digital finger print which is then used by websites and third party businesses for a number of reasons such as marketing and analysis. There’s not too much you can do to stop people tracking your movements online, but you can at least see who’s looking at you. Lightbeam is a free tool available for Mozilla’s Firefox browser. The add-on creates a graph of the cookies created as a result of your internet activity. Third party companies and websites that are tracking these cookies are displayed, giving you an idea of how far your information has reached.

Mozilla’s Alex Fowler said:

"Third parties are an integral part of the way the Internet works today. However, when we’re unable to understand the value these companies provide and make informed choices about their data collection practices, the result is a steady erosion of trust for all stakeholders".

I Spy

The way that your data is used by third parties is very rarely malicious. The information about your online habits is most likely used for marketing and advertising purposes, however it can seem a little scary when you see highly specific adverts pop up. Jason, the BirchenallHowden Development Manager, shares his experience of online tracking:

“I have found that after browsing an article on Amazon, the items I have been looking at appear at the top of my Skype chat windows - sometimes within a few minutes of browsing amazon itself. There is nothing linking my skype account and amazon account other than the cookies that both sites seem to use. Whilst adverts can be blocked in skype and other applications, there are people collating an awful lot of information about us with the sole purpose of trying to make money from whatever we do online”.

Browsing the web is safe, and any information you do give up will generally be handled correctly. You should be aware of how information is transferred online though, and also be wise to the potential your data could be used for reasons you may not have consented to.

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