My data?


While in my first article, I tried to understand the constant flow of information and data that reaches me on a daily basis, today I want to learn a bit more what type and amounts of data I daily provide to various companies. 

For me it is always a bit abstract to read in the news about big tech stealing your data and of big brother watching you. Often I tell myself that this is a problem for other people and not for me. Having deactivated most of the automatic tracking of apps in my phone, using a VPN most of the time both on my laptop and phone, I feel rather save from the big data thieves. Besides, what data do I have that I should be so protective about. Does it really bother me that Google knows what things I look up or that Amazon tracks what things I regularly buy on Amazon. After all, I am not a thief or criminal who is trying to hide anything. 

However in line with my reflection on data consumption, I don’t just accept this any longer but actually get some better understanding what daily deals I make on a daily basis with big tech. These companies are very good in telling us what they can offer us but tell us very little about what they want in return. It is quite obvious that they don’t do it for the greater good or for the sake of public benefit but rather because these are quite lucrative business models. Facebook paid $16 billion for the acquisition of WhatsApp alone. With about 2 billion people using WhatsApp, this puts the value of a single user at about $8. Doesn’t seem too much – but what exactly do I give WhatsApp justifying this value? 

In this article, I will explore my contracts with various technology companies such as Facebook, Google, Spotify and Reddit. In our daily life, we use their services frequently and wouldn’t want to miss them. However, many people don’t know what they give in exchange for these free services. By analysing my relationship with these big tech companies, understanding what they provide me and what I am giving them in return, I want to derive a conscious decision on what services are truly worthy to me. 

My relationship with big tech

In this analysis, I will limit my scope on the tech services that I use most frequently. These services span a wide range from private messaging and location tracking to ecommerce and music streaming. The graphic below shows the relationship that I have with these companies and what I pay them with. As most of these services I use are free, my form of payment is mostly my data. Only for Spotify and Amazon I have a paid subscription. As Facebook owns both Instagram and WhatsApp, I cluster them together. Google owns YouTube and has a wide range of services next to it Google Search Engine. For both the Facebook and the Google cloud, I count them as one relationship as it is an all or nothing deal. I cannot want to use Instagram but wanting to prevent Facebook from getting my data. 

It was quite easy to come up with ten companies to that I freely and frequently provide my data. There is a couple of more such as Netflix, Blinkist, Airbnb, Twitter and Uber that I excluded as I don’t use them too frequently and I assume the data I provide them is rather limited. This might be a completely false assumption and I will explore these data trails at a later point. For the sack of this analysis, the above shown ten companies shall be sufficient. 

It personally helped me to visualize the connections I have with various companies as it is easy to loose oversight and it makes me reflect if I truly need all of their services. In the next section, I will explore further if I am okay with the amount of data I provide to big tech and if what I receive in return is worth it. 

The data I give (or the price I pay) and what big tech knows about me

Thanks to new regulations, it is quite easy nowadays to request your personal data that these companies possess. I hope that this article also inspires you to become a bit more curious of the data deals that you made with various companies. Below you can find links explaining on how to request your personal data from the above shown companies:

What I received back was quite different per company regarding the amount of data, the readability, accessibility and comprehensibility. Some had instructions to understand every sub-data set others sent it mostly in a format meant to import to another service provided and did not make it too easy to read them.

After receiving such a vast amount of data, I was quite overwhelmed and it took me some time to get a good overview of each data set. To make an analysis easier, I decided to not go too much into the technical details of each dataset especially as they differentiating in the above mentioned aspects. However, one factor on which I can compare these data sets quite easily is my own reaction and reception. As this is a rather personal analysis that does not need to stand any comparison with others or serve as a basis for any quantitative decision making, I am satisfied with a rather qualitative self-survey on how well I receive the amount of detail these companies know about different aspects of my life. As this is quite a personal observation, my opinion and level of satisfaction around personal data tracked might vary greatly from yours. I encourage everyone to do a similar analysis to understand if they are content with the amount of data that they give away to various companies. 

For this, I broke the type of information into five different segments: 

  • Data about me as a person such as birthday, gender, age, etc. (Who I am)
  • Location related data: home address & geo tracking (Where I am)
  • Activity tracking such as searches, purchases, etc. (What I do)
  • Preference analysis around add targeting, interest groups, etc. (What I like)
  • Information about my social network, friends and family (Who I know)

I rated the amount and detail of data collected per category on the following scale

  • Satisfied/as expected (green emoticon)
  • Neutral/unexpected but in the range of the acceptable (yellow emoticon)
  • Unsatisfied/unexpected and outside of the range of the acceptable (red emoticon) 
  • No data collected (grey x)

The good, the bad and the ugly

Creating this overview helped firstly understand what type and amount of data a give to any of these tech companies. It also gives now a high level overview of how satisfied I am about the data I give away.

Let’s briefly break it down: 

  • Services that don’t track much of my data: Reddit, Spotify, WhatsApp
  • Services that track more data but is in an acceptable range: Amazon, Apple, LinkedIn
  • Services that for my taste track too much data: Facebook, Google, Instagram

Briefly covering the first group, the low data trackers, I am still happiest with Reddit as it allows for an more or less anonymous usage of their services. It is not even required to have an account even though it comes with a few advantages. When doing so, little to no personal information is required. This is the clear winner for me in this analysis. 

Close second is Spotify as the service tracks only a limited amount of data but anything else would have really upset me as this is a fee-based service after all. The only reason why Spotify scores lower than Reddit for me is that I was a bit surprised that they created a customer profile on me (even though capturing a quite odd one). 

WhatsApp comes in third as they really don’t collect much of my data. Only downside, even though expected is that they have access to all the phone contacts on my phone. They do store this information without any names but as they can clearly link me to my phone number, they can easily do that for all their customers. Otherwise, WhatsApp seems quite alright wouldn’t there be a pending request to sign new terms of agreement that give Facebook as the new owner more and more rights to collect and access my data. Let me come back on this one later. 

Coming to the second group, it gets a bit harder to rank them. For me, Apple comes probably next in line one place number 4. They do track quite some basic information about me but most of this is related to my using also their hardware. However, they seem to have quite a detailed database on all the people in my contacts, which makes sense as I ultimately put them there. Regardless, it is a bit scary seeing that level of detail about everyone you know. 

Next in line is Amazon as they only store the most basic information about me, which makes sense to have based on their business model of sending me stuff that I buy via their platform. The only thing that I did not like is that they put me in quite a few user groups and track my behaviour around ads. Makes of course sense for them to target me as a potential customer for more stuff but also shows the downside of buying too much from the same ecommerce platform. 

Last in this category is LinkedIn. While being quite alright on basic personal data, I did not expect them to track and store every conversation I had so far. No comparison to encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp. I will certainly ensure that I only communicate the bare minimum via LinkedIn. Of course, LinkedIn is a social media network and they know who I know but I did not expect them to also access the contact data from my phone. Turns out they don’t just know who I am connected with but also snoop in my phone data.

Lastly, let me cover the ugly ones. The ones that milk as much data out of me as possible. For place seven and eight, I cannot really differentiate as this is by now more or less the same company and assumingly a connected database as well: Facebook and Instagram. As both of them are social media platforms, they naturally know quite a fair share about myself, where I am (at least when I post something) and what I do. Where they score especially bad however is in the categories of what I like and who I know. They not only track and store every conversation but also, to no surprise, access all my contacts saved in my phone. 

The last spot, however, is reserved for Google. Let me first start with this: I really like Google’s services. From the search engine to maps, it simply has a superior service. I tried alternatives like DuckDuckGo but noticed quickly that it could simply not delivery me the same quality of search results as Google can. Google maps also used to be superior to everything else. When Apple introduced its version of maps, I also was fairly disappointed. However, in the recent years this has improved and I will certainly give it another go when I use an iPhone again. For now, enough nice things about Google. The issue is that these superior services come with a price. No, it’s not like they charge me 10 € a month or something but they do track me thoroughly. For example, I can trace all my visited places since many years to a scary level of detail. See screenshot below on the places I visited when I was in Mexico in 2018. 

Additionally, every search I did with Google is meticulously tracked. Of course also this does not come as a real surprise but regardless is scary once you see how much they indeed know about you. 

Google of course as more services besides maps and search engine as for example Google Home. It is a smart speaker that listens to what you say but also saves everything you ever said. Here a small snapshot of recorded conversations. Of course most are when the device was addressed but it also contained smaller snapshots of random conversations. Save to say that I did not continue using this device much more after the initial trial period in 2017. Good to mention that I got the smart speaker for free with my phone. Therefore, I had zero regrets disposing it.  

Overall, Google scores the worst score overall and only is ranking fairly better in the category of who I am. However considering that it knows so much more in every other category, I feel like the company knows me already better than anyone else. 

Anyway, enough complaining about how much data these tech giants suck out of me. In the end, I am offered a pristine service at any point in time for virtually zero costs. Let me evaluate in the next section, what I actually get in return for nearly free access to all my personal data.

Is it all worth it?

Let me reuse the graphic from above to visualize the services that I receive. The layout remains the same, however the arrows are inverted and now indicating my received benefits. This might seem straight forward at first as of course it is quite known that LinkedIn offers you access to a worldwide professional network and the opportunity to connect with almost any other professional in the world with the tip of a finger. However, in this section I want to focus less on bolstering the great services that each of these companies provide. It is fair to say that all of them offer top-notch services to many customers as otherwise they would not be traded that highly. Instead, this is more intended to be a self-reflection of the ultimate value provided to me.

Now that I am aware of the costs that come with using any of these free services, I want to focus on what I do get in return and if this is ultimately worth it for me. Starting with the worst ranking service provider from above assessment, Google, I must say that even though I give a tremendously high level of privacy the services are stellar and I could not live without them any longer. Google search and maps itself are tools that I use multiple times every day and they still show superiority to other service providers such as DuckDuckGo. Even though, I will not let go of Google’s services offered any time soon, I am planning to dedicate a more thorough analysis to its services and the possibilities I have within these to limit my data exposure. Once I have written about it, I will link it here. YouTube as part of the Google network stands out as it doesn’t offer the same level of basic needs services as the others do. However, it is the strongest platform for videos and I use it frequently. As I do not use it too often and only then watch a couple of channels, I am considering deactivating my account and just search for videos every ones and a while without being signed in. In the end, they offer all their services without the requirement of having an account, which for me takes away all the costs related to this service. 

Next in line is the Facebook ecosystem with Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook. This for me seems like an obvious one but also one of the most difficult assessments. Simply said, at this point in my life Instagram and Facebook offer me little to no value to me. As I mention in my previous article, already for a while I have deleted these apps from my home screen and with that my usage of them has plummeted. Simple conclusion for me, let me cancel my accounts and delete these apps. But wait, there is the third ugly little brother called WhatsApp. While WhatsApp ranks fairly better in my above analysis, it is still an interconnected part of the Facebook universe and I am afraid that cutting of the other two heads will unfortunately not fully kill the beast. Additionally, WhatsApp simply has such a strong userbase including most of my friends and serves as the main medium of communication on a daily basis. Therefore the value as of now that it offers is still high enough for me wanting to use it even though competitors such as Signal offer the same service but with a promise of more privacy. However, first steps need to be done and a good and easy start are indeed Facebook and Instagram. For now, my actions are as follows: get rid of the first two and further assess WhatsApp and possible work arounds that I could use instead. 

For other services offered by LinkedIn, Amazon, Spotify and Apple it is already not as black and white anymore. While I value their services, they are not of most critical need for me but ease my daily life. Yet the cost of using their services seems not too high still and the benefits outweigh the negatives. Additionally, I am paying for both Spotify and Amazon in hard currency next to the data that I expose to them. My general tendency for now is to continue using them but consciously only when truly needed.

Lastly, I have Reddit that I definitely want to use less but unrelated to the cost that I have for accessing this service. Indeed the costs are rather low and I could decrease them even further by deleting my account and just searching for content that I would like to access. The service itself is great in extend of information available but also dangerous as it can drag you into repeated usage without ultimate value gained. Therefore, I will for now maintain my account but continue using the service cautiously. Definitely a candidate for the future, however, to delete my account and with it all my personal information.

Let me summarize in short, the exercise of identifying the true cost for each service was eye-opening and made me reflect on the real value that these services provide. It is easy to loose oversight and I can therefore only recommend to create an overview and to regularly revaluate the individual use case of each service to you. As a direct action of writing this article, I will delete both my Facebook and Instagram account while also setting myself the goal to further evaluate all other services used over the months to come with the goal to further reduce my digital footprint.

How about you? Have you had similar thoughts before? If yes, I can highly encourage you to take the extra time to understand the not so obvious price you are paying for all of these services and to really evaluate the benefit gain for yourself. Let me know which service you could not live with and which you might already have banned from your life.

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