What is your data?

Do you feel like you live a big part of your life online?

If the answer is, “Erm, yes!!”, the next question is: does it feel like you're giving away little pieces of yourself, all day, every day?

Well, you probably are - and big companies use those little pieces, that you give away for free, to make money for themselves. Here’s how:

The smartphone in your pocket is a tracking device, following your every move.

It knows where you’ve been, who you know, and what you do. It knows all your secrets.

Those secrets (aka your data) can be pulled together from different places, and put together like a jigsaw. People and companies can access anything you put online, like your name, age, school, or your favourite ice cream.

But why does that matter? Surely there’s no harm in letting someone see what ice cream you like?

By finding out which ice cream you love, where you eat it, how much you spend on it and when you might want it, someone can show you an advert for ice cream, at the exact moment you're most likely to buy it. That’s when it starts to get creepy.

So how on earth does this kind of creepy jigsaw get made? Well, it starts with what we deliberately post online.

To get a social media account we give details like our name, email and date of birth.

In return we get to use things like Facebook to connect with our friends (hooray!) and our mum can write embarrassing comments on posts, for all to see (boo!).

But that’s just the start of Facebook’s secret-ish mission to find out everything they can about us.

They can learn about you from something as simple as a ‘like’. The things you write, share and search for, the pages or people you follow, all give Facebook more of what its advertisers and other businesses need, to make money - clues about you.

Remember that funny Harry Potter quiz? Well, in your quest to find out whether you’re more Hermione Granger than Ron Weasley, you probably gave away stuff about yourself that could be used elsewhere.

Photos that friends share of you, even if you’re not tagged, could be traced back to you, because Facebook can recognise faces. And extra details go with every picture - like the time and place it was taken and who uploaded it.

More into Instagram or WhatsApp? Well Facebook owns them too - so can reach across different apps to find out extra bits of information.

And it’s not just about social media. Sites like Google can learn so much about you from what you search for and what you buy online.

You can also be easily tracked using what are known as ‘cookies’.

Cookies help your computer remember where you’ve been i.e. what you’ve been doing online.

So let’s say you’ve got 30 mins of screen time before you *have to* do your homework.

You start by watching your favourite gamer on YouTube, then open another browser and search for the new season strip of your favourite football team. Next time you go on YouTube you see ads pop up for your team’s merch.

The cookie remembered what you’d looked at in one browser, so that it could offer you something you’d be interested in buying, in another.

Check for yourself by going into your history on the top toolbar of your computer. The list of places you’ve been online is laid out clearly.

Giving away data isn’t just about what we do sitting at home on the internet.

It also applies to what we do IRL.

For example, when you join the Free Wi-Fi at your local shopping centre, remember that nothing in this world is for free. You’re paying for that Wi-Fi with your valuable information.

You probably ticked a box to accept the terms and conditions (which are so long that nobody actually reads them), and gave some details like your email address.

Remember the jigsaw? Just because you only give your email at that moment, doesn’t mean that’s the only piece of the puzzle you’re handing over.

When people go shopping they leave a data trail, often without realising it. For example, a supermarket loyalty card takes your data in return for bonus points and discounts on stuff.

Electronic receipts are handy and save you from losing pesky pieces of paper. But remember, you’ve had to give an email address in order to receive that e-receipt. Again, that’s data collection.

And that little spy in your pocket keeps cleverly tracking where you go and how you get there.

Technology has made so many things easier, but people are definitely wising up to the price they’re paying for that.

And people are more aware about how valuable their information is - not just for themselves, but for others too. Recent horror stories of personal info being leaked or given away without proper permission have made sure of that.

A new law has been designed to protect people and make organisations (big and small) behave more responsibly or face big fines.

Remember: every time you give your information, someone somewhere goes "ker-ching". That's how little pieces of us have become 'the product'.

So it’s in all of our interest to become a bit more savvy about how much we give away.

Knowledge is power.

Advice from Anne-Marie Tomchak