What is Data Harvesting And How to Prevent It

What is Data Harvesting And How to Prevent It

Protect your data from being harvested by taking these steps.

Despite the plummeting stock price since February this year, Facebook, or Meta, is one of the OG social media platforms where people share information and stay in touch with friends and family. However, it has come under fire for misconducts over the last decades, including misinformation, dark pattern usage and, lately (or again; i.e. the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal), data harvesting practices that compromise user privacy. 

In January this year, a class-action lawsuit has been filed against Facebook’s parent company, Meta, in the United Kingdom, claiming that the social media network has harvested their personal data. Filed by competition expert Dr. Liza Lovdahl Gormsen, the US$3.2 billion lawsuit alleges that the social media network “abused its market dominance” by imposing unfair terms and conditions on UK users to profit from their personal information. 

The claim, if successful, could see more than 44 million users compensated for the exploitation of their personal and private information from 2015 to 2019. During these four years, Facebook amassed data both within its own platform and from third-party websites via the Facebook Pixel, an advertising tool that third-party websites may use to track user actions on their sites. This data helped the company make excessive profits. 

Just last month, another class-action lawsuit hit the social media giant for alleged scraping of sensitive patient-status data through hospital websites, violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This case was filed by an anonymous patient in the Northern District of California. Meta can’t seem to catch a break.

That said, data collection isn’t bad or illegal in essence. Businesses can create targeted ads and improve user experiences if they use it properly and be transparent about their practice. If your data falls into the wrong hands, your personal details might be sold and capitalized upon. 

What is data harvesting?

Data harvesting refers to collecting information from various sources, like websites, apps and social media platforms, into a database to draw inferences. In most situations, data harvesting scripts (pieces of computer code) and bots are used to gather information, such as contact information, personal data and payment details, without the user’s knowledge. These scripts analyze the collected data and run automated searches against them. 

In some cases, legitimate purposes, such as research or marketing, might also require data harvesting. However, your data could also be scraped for malicious purposes, such as identity theft and fraud. 

Most people think of data harvesting as something that only big companies do. The truth is, anyone can do data harvesting with a computer and an internet connection. All it takes is a little know-how and some time. Therefore, if you don’t want to fall victim to scams, make sure that you take the following steps to protect your data.

How to protect yourself from data harvesting?

Use a VPN

A virtual private network (VPN) hides your IP address (the code that identifies your online connection) at its most basic level. It creates an end-to-end encrypted connection, making it more difficult for hackers to access your data. If you use a VPN to surf the internet, your Internet Service Provider (ISP) and other third-party websites will not be able to access your online activity and history. 

Furthermore, a VPN also protects your privacy when you connect to public Wi-Fi networks. Bear in mind that your data is always at risk when you use a public Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop, restaurant or hotel. To minimize the risk, use a quality VPN when using a public Wi-Fi network. 

Update your devices’ privacy settings

Social media platforms are part of our lives now, and thus it is more important than ever to ensure that the privacy settings of your phone and laptop are properly set up to protect yourself from data harvesting. For example, you can adjust permissions to prohibit third-party apps from scraping your data, such as modifying which apps can access your current location. Check and update your security settings regularly. 

Use anti-tracking browsers and browser extensions

Additionally, consider using privacy-focused browser or browser extensions, like Privacy Badger and DuckDuckGo, to help block data-mining trackers. 

For instance, the DuckDuckGo browser extension rates each website and gives it a privacy score, so that you know which sites use encryption and are safe to browse. It also blocks trackers from third-party sites and informs you which advertisers are monitoring your online activity. As for Privacy Badger, its extension uses algorithmic methods to identify and block recurring trackers across websites. It does not block any sites immediately upon installation because it has to learn what to block according to what sites you go to.

Do your research before you enter contests or surveys

We’ve all seen the pop-ups and banner ads that promise us gifts if we just enter our email address or take a survey. While it’s tempting to go for the chance to win a new car or get a free vacation, it’s important to do your research before entering any sketchy-looking surveys. There are a lot of scammers out there who are looking to collect your data, and they will use any means necessary to get it. 

Before handing your personal information to any sites, find out who is collecting the data, how it will be used and whether you’re comfortable with that. It only takes a few minutes, but it could save you a lot of headaches down the road.

By taking the time to safeguard your data and keeping your personal details out of the public eye, you can keep your data from harvesting attempts by hackers and data brokers. So go ahead, stay informed and stay secure!

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Header image courtesy of Unsplash

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