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How to take control of your personal data

Stay safe online

Discover ways to help keep control over your personal data online.

What is personal data?

At its simplest, this is your name, age, gender, where you live, if you’re married or not, an email address and bank account details. But the definition of personal data has grown in the digital age to also include your online behaviour. This can cover your favourite types of food, what you buy most online (at what price and how often), where you are in the country (and what you’re getting up to). It can also include your favourite films and TV shows, who your online friends are, photos on social media and even which way you might vote in an election.

5 ways you share your data – and some of them may surprise you

Apps that can divulge more about you than your exact location

Download an app for fun or fitness, say, and you can be at risk of giving away a lot more than you think. Silly quizzes or games apps that while away the hours might seem like innocent fun but many can access your contacts, emails and even take photos or videos. Fitness apps track the number of daily steps you take, how far (and how often) you run, where you’re going and even how much sleep you get – your health is of huge interest to firms. But while you can get discounts and special offers, this data can also be used by firms to gauge how you’re feeling, how tired you might be, your overall fitness levels and how active you are. 

Take control – always check your settings to see what data your apps are ‘permitted’ to access on your device

You’ll often see ‘permission’ boxes pop up on your mobile device screen, asking if you’ll allow it to access different types of data. One of the most common is permission to access your physical location (your ‘GPS’) – used in exercise apps – as well as your contacts and photos.

Go into your mobile device settings to decide what bits of data you’re happy to share – this can usually be done by changing your privacy settings.

Social media sharing that reveals too much

It’s a daily habit for millions of people. You settle on the sofa to post photos of a recent dinner on social media, and tag friends and the restaurant you went to. You also ‘like’ some news and shopping posts and fill in a wacky quiz that suggests what kind of root vegetable you’d be. Yet the personal data you’ve just shared can be used to build a profile about you and your life. It can give insights into your spending habits, income, if you’re in a relationship, political beliefs, favourite shops and how you’re feeling at that given moment. For example, putting a ‘sad face’ next to a post about refugees could reveal a willingness to give to charity.

Take control – take greater control of your social media settings

Find out what apps are linked to your social media accounts and what info they’re accessing – eg photos, your location, calendar or camera. You can do this by opening up app ‘settings’ on your device and then choose to delete or keep the apps you’re happy with. You can also alter the types of adverts you receive on social media and decide if you want your debit or credit card details stored too.

Search engines that allow advertisers to target you personally

Use the internet to search for a holiday, best prices for a hatchback car or second-hand bicycle shops, and your browsing history will let firms target you with advertising. For example, buy a flight overseas and you’ll see adverts pop up for hotels in your mini-break destination. Or search for ways to whiten your teeth and firms will be quick to offer to help you make them sparkle.

Take control – set your internet browser settings to a level you’re comfortable with

How you do this may vary between individual devices but if you’re unsure, it’s easily found with a bit of internet research.

For most mobile devices, simply go into your ‘general settings’ and look for your browser’s name. You can then alter the settings for greater control over pop-ups being blocked, if you want to allow websites to send you notifications or whether they have to ask you for permission to get your device’s cookie data or GPS location. Be sure to also check your ‘privacy setting’ as there may be other options you can control. 

For most computers you’ll be able to manage your cookies and privacy settings directly from your internet browser by selecting ‘internet options’ from the menu.  

Also you can also choose to search the web without your browser tracking your choice of sites, which prevents your internet history from being used. You can turn this on in your device settings, although the feature name is different in each browser – InPrivate for Internet Explorer or Edge, Incognito in Chrome and Private Browsing in Firefox.

Subscriptions to music, TV and film streaming that tell tales about your personal tastes

It doesn’t matter if you’re an action movie junkie, comedy connoisseur or mad fan of folk music – your media streaming service will know your preferred tastes with precision (and when you like to watch or listen and for how long). This can influence the choice of other titles you watch or listen to, and can shape the media you consume.

Take control – check the small print to make sure you’re happy with how a firm uses your data

This isn’t always easy since many websites’ T&Cs can be wordy and full of legalese. But when you agree to them it can allow firms to do what they want with your data. Some sites now offer a shorter, more user-friendly version of their terms, so you can get a good feel of how they’ll look after your data.

Loyalty cards and apps that tell firms what kind of shopper you are

Pay for your morning coffee using the store’s loyalty app and it logs what you like, how much you spend and at what time. In return, you get discounts and offers. Or hand over your loyalty card in the supermarket to rack up points for money off or special offers – the store can then ‘personalise’ its advertising since it knows what you like to buy. New regular purchases of nappies might suggest you’ve started a family or pet food that you’ve bought a dog. Many shops do this to create a customer profile that can be sold on to advertisers and marketers.

Take control – only hand over personal data to brands or firms you trust

Any time you give away your personal data, decide whether those who want it have a good reason for asking.

For example, you might be happy with a favourite store demanding data on your tastes and interests and an email address to send tailored marketing offers. But if a firm you hardly use wants the same details, keep them to yourself.

Also be very clear about your marketing preferences when you sign up, and decide how you want to be contacted. You may like email only or be happy with texts and direct phone calls too.

Data dictionary

Browser

A software program used to open pages on the internet. Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Safari and Firefox are widely used browsers.

Browsing history

A record of the websites you visit, when you’re on them and how often. 

Cookie

A small file that can be used to (amongst other things) track your preferences on a website. It knows how often you’ve logged on, what type of information you look at, and the links you tend to open.

GPS

Stands for global positioning system. Shows where your smartphone is located in the world using the same technology as the sat-navs we use in our cars.

Permission box

A message that appears on your device asking if you will allow a particular app to access your personal data. 

Pop-ups

Adverts for services and goods that appear suddenly on your device.

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The General Data Protection Regulation

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