Analysis: learning how to prevent unwanted data collection takes effort, but there are tools that make it much easier to preserve your privacy

John is a pathologically nosy neighbour who spies on everything you do. He reads your mail, looks through your windows, listens to your conversations and notes down when you go for a run. He constantly rings your doorbell to ask which friends paid you a visit, inquire about your new car or even discuss your most recent doctor's appointment.

After a few weeks of this harassment, even the most patient of us would confront him, contact the gardaí or move. But if the prospect of John’s nosiness is so infuriating, then why do we not seem to care when something similar happens to us online?

Technology companies, like Google, Facebook and Amazon routinely scoop up personal information of internet users. They gather and analyse minute details about our shopping habits, employment and medical history, personal finances, political preferences and even sex lives.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Adrian Weckler, Technology Editor with the Irish and Sunday Independent, on WhatsApp's privacy policy

We provide this information most of the time for free by clicking accept on cookie disclaimers and in-app privacy policies. Some of us pay for data collecting devices like voice assistants, video doorbells and fitness trackers. In monetary terms, it seems like a great deal. Without paying for anything, or by merely purchasing a cool piece of hardware, we gain access to personalised content, valuable services, or a convenient way to stay in touch with our friends.

But when we factor the data transferred to tech companies, the real costs become extortionate. In exchange for a free or cheap product, we agree to become that company’s most valuable commodity. Data generated through our online interactions is "shared with partners" and used to "offer personalized content" or "develop and improve products and services".

If you are not sure what these vague phrases mean, this is exactly the point. Opting out of data collection is designed to be as difficult and inconvenient as possible, with the companies hoping that your laziness will stop you from taking an interest in what they do. By obscuring what happens to data and by blocking access to websites and services behind indecipherable consent forms, the tech industry gives itself near-complete control over our personal information, especially as existing regulations and their enforcement are far from perfect.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Aoife Hegarty reports on how new technologies bring concerns about privacy

Companies try to generate and collect as much data as possible because intimate knowledge about people can be easily translated into power. If a company knows how you spend your free time or what you are concerned about, they can easily "nudge" you in their desired direction by suggesting products, news articles or other recommendations – exercise more, participate in this event, follow this influencer. We should not forget the financial gains from selling and using data (personalised ads lie behind 80% of Google’s revenue), but its value as a tool of control might be even greater, which explains why governments are also keen on collecting data about their citizens.

While data-enabled influence is not always harmful, private companies might be inclined to value profit over their users’ interests and turn innocent nudging into manipulation. Moreover, as the recent HSE ransomware attack suggests, large datasets are of special interests to malicious actors who should not be trusted with intimate details about our lives.

Fortunately, you do not have to become a digital hermit if you want to reclaim some of the power taken from you with your data. Learning how to block all kinds of unwanted data collection can take some effort, but there are tools that make it much easier to preserve your privacy.

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From How It Happened, how does DuckDuckGo work and how does it compare to Google?

Try replacing Google’s search engine with DuckDuckGo, a privacy-friendly alternative which does not record your searches and only offers contextual ads – you might see an ad for shoes because you typed "shoes" into your search bar, not because Google’s algorithms predicted you might need a new pair.

Opt for Mozilla Firefox over Google's Chrome would also limit the amount of data that is collected about you, especially if you install a DuckDuckGo extension, which blocks intrusive tracking on the websites you visit. If you are tired of clicking through the ever-present cookie disclaimers, Consent-O-Matic automates the process according to your preferences.

Maybe download the privacy-oriented Signal instead of the Facebook-owned WhatsApp, provided your friends are also willing to make the change. You could also consider installing a virtual private network (VPN), which reroutes your network traffic through a remote server to make sure nobody can monitor your activity unless they look over your shoulder.

From TechtheLead, which side are you on in the war over privacy between Signal and WhatsApp?

Moreover, privacy experts are constantly inventing revolutionary ways of dealing with data. Data cooperatives allow members to collectively manage their data in ways that emphasise social and scientific interests over private profits. Some communities have experimented with data trusts, which manage data similarly to how accountants take care of people’s finances. In turn, personal data stores promise their users an easy and uniform way to store and handle their sensitive information.

We do not have to accept the vision of the data environment offered to us by technology companies hoovering up as much information as possible in the hope that it might prove profitable someday. Instead, we should demand that developers and policymakers recognise our wishes for privacy and help us construct a more equitable and user-friendly digital world. Clicking reject on a cookie disclaimer gives you much more power than you realise. It is about time similar options became available to us in all aspects of our digital life.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ