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Big Brother is Watching: What Internet Companies Know about You from Your Web Activity

Every citizen produces data traces, whether shopping online, browsing the Web or watching YouTube clips on a Smartphone. A new study by Vienna Research Institute along with the U.K.’s ‘Dissertation Help Service’ (http://dissertationhelpservice.co.uk/) draws conclusions from your Web activity.

Business dealing with personal data runs globally, notes a study by the Vienna Research Institute done on the request of the Austrian Chamber of Labor. Collection, linkage and utilization of personal data is a billion dollar business, and Web users are its target. In the public perception, companies like Google and Facebook are the largest data collectors but, in reality, dozens of other companies collect, process and trade information about Internet users.

Modern technology allows Internet companies to recognize individual consumers of all devices and platforms. With the help of data, mining companies can analyze large amounts of personal data to establish patterns of Internet activity. These patterns are then used to make projections about future behavior of the Web users. For example, the supermarket chain Target can establish from the purchasing behavior of a pregnant woman when her baby is due, without taking into account typical purchases such as baby clothes or a stroller.

The more Web companies know about you, the more tricks they can play. Depending on your browsing patterns, location, habits, recent purchases and other information, some online stores will increase or decrease their prices. If you have recently purchased a top-notch laptop and regularly visit the Louis Vuitton website, some companies will charge you more for the same products. For instance, U.S. office supply retailer Staples, changes its prices on average by eight percent depending on the browsing patterns of the users. The situation is even more complicated by Smartphones and tablets. Many apps access personal data without any necessity.

However, some companies introduce benefits to the users for collecting their data. For instance, the German insurance company Direkt offers its customers a five percent discount if they install a telematics box which collects data about their driving patterns. If the customers drive safely, they preserve the discount for a longer time. However, if they start driving fast, cause hazardous situations on the roads, drive much more during the night, they lose their discount.

The study by Vienna Research Institute analyzes the social impact of data collection-mania and notes the transition into the surveillance society, drawing attention to the risk of data misuse or loss. Companies tend to discriminate against certain groups of people based on their behavior on the Internet. Some individuals would thus be unequally treated by the businesses, for example, through higher prices or insurance premiums. The study appears to introduce more transparency to the data mining algorithms, while strengthening digital civil society and providing it with more leverage to monitor how information of Web users is being used by corporations.


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Steve Ageev

Steve Ageev is a blogger and writer at http://jessicaelmore.com/

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