• Key issues

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

‘With every click, we’re like Hansel and Gretel leaving our breadcrumbs through the digital woods’

By eleanor blackwood

Wed 08 Jul 2020

4 min read

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:

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