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What is data profiling, and how does it affect you?

How your 'digital self' is bought and sold

Man on phone walking, shown as collection of personal information and data profiling

‘With every click, we’re like Hansel and Gretel leaving our breadcrumbs through the digital woods’ (Gary Kovacs, CEO of Accela)

What exactly is data profiling?

Data profiling is the compilation of people's personal data to create ‘data profiles’, which can then be used for individual-level targeting.

Or as Phil Lee, from the legal firm Fieldfisher explained:

‘In simple terms, profiling refers to using someone’s personal information in order to build up a picture of the type of person they are and the way they behave’

How can data profiling be used?

Data profiling can be be used in hugely variant ways, but the most common fit into three broad categories:

  1. Analytics reporting e.g. “15% of the visitors to our website are female, in professional jobs, and in the 25-34 age bracket”
  2. Some kind of evaluation e.g. “This individual presents a high risk of defaulting on a loan.”
  3. Or targeting purposes e.g. “Serve this ad to an audience of men aged between 35 - 44 and interested in sports”

It's the third kind that people tend to find most concerning, particularly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and further reporting on the Adtech industry. Like most things, data profiling can be used to meet your needs or to meet the needs of others. Either way, it should be up to you to decide what happens with your data.

Discover your data profile

How is the personal data collected in the first place?

This information is gleaned from many sources, but ‘third-party cookies’ are perhaps the most notable.These third parties - made up of data brokers, analytics firms, and Adtech to name but a few - get permission from website owners to monitor browsing. This information is then stored against a unique identifier to build up a detailed picture about the needs, wants, and habits of individual consumers, and sold on.

⚠️ It’s worth noting that if you’re logged on to sites like Google or Facebook when you browse, the information collected will be more in-depth. This is because they own ‘persistent identifiers’ like email addresses and accounts that follow consumer behaviour.

What types of personal data are used to profile you?

Personal data like your relationship status, financial data, and causes you might volunteer for are collected and repackaged as part of a valuable data profile to be sold to others. For many, this feels like an invasion of privacy. The types of data that can typically make up a profile are below:

Personal data types

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Are all forms of data profiling bad?

No, there are many forms that we consent to in order to make our online experience better. You might be fine with forms of data collection that directly benefit you.

Research from Harvard Business Review (2015) shows individuals are largely comfortable sharing their buying habits in order to enhance their consumer experience. For example, being shown film suggestions or local recommendations based upon current location. In these cases, personal data has been given with explicit consent and a clear benefit to the consumer: the exchange is felt to be largely transparent.

Of course, there are many forms of data collection, and some are more transparent than others. Data profiling can also have a negative financial impact on your day-to-day life. For example, your insurance quote or airplane prices may be inflated or reduced due to factors about your identity and how you live your life. This is likely in contrast to the persistent idea that the commercial uses of personal data are limited to digital advertising alone, which simply isn’t the case. As we've seen from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and advertising technology industry, data profiling can be used to 'nudge' people towards decisions. These decisions have far greater ramifications than shopping alone, but extends to your likelihood of getting a loan to election results. More still, the personal data that enables data profiling is not always given with our consent, or even our knowledge: many mental health websites for example sell the personal data of their users.

So, overall, should we be worried about data profiling?

Some individuals may not mind at all that their data is being used, regardless of the situation. Others may take a more protective stance on their ‘digital selves’.

What it comes down to are two central issues: transparency and control. By transparency, we mean knowing where our data goes and on what terms.

Once we have transparency over what's being given up, control is possible: you the consumer can exercise your own rights over your data effectively. It should be up to you.

As investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr emphasises: ‘It all comes back to control, having control over who has our data and how it is being used’.

Even in an industry as complex as data, it should be made simple for you to decide what happens to yours. To read more about about how best to do this check out our how to send a SAR page, or find out where your data is below!

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