Data harvesting – the price you pay for free online services

Data harvesting funds free services by allowing shadowy agents to persuade and predict our behaviour, at the cost of our personal privacy.

Thursday, 24 August, 2023

Apart from a monthly broadband contract, the internet is largely a free resource.

We use search engines and social media platforms without charge, installing free apps onto our smartphones and augmenting free email services with free video calling technology.

Of course, nothing in life is truly free.

There are costs involved in every digital service we use, from photo editing tools and AI text generators to messaging boards and social media sites.

It costs money to host information on data servers, to create new content, to code new software, and to promote these services.

When we use something without paying any money to do so, the cost is simply being underwritten in other ways.

That might be benign, such as advertising-funded YouTube videos, or it may be more insidious…

A rich harvest

Most people are unaware of the breadcrumb trail of evidence they leave in their wake when venturing online.

Everything is monitored and logged, from the exact second we start browsing (and the web browser we use to do it) through to the sites we visit and how we interact with them.

Information is recorded by a spectrum of agencies, from the broadband providers handling our connections to the resources we visit, where cookies are almost inevitably stored.

Cookies are a particularly insidious method of tracking, recording the who, what, where and when. Even refusing optional cookies won’t stop essential ones being recorded.

Cookies are the reason you’ll see adverts relating to Google or Bing searches months later, though they can be removed, as we explain in this guide to deleting cookies.

However, it’s not just cookies that are responsible for data harvesting, which is also known as data mining. Most free platforms and portals will be logging and reselling your data.

Social media platforms are particularly skilled at accumulating personal data and reselling it to marketing agencies, who might use it for any number of current and future purposes.

Other common sources of personally identifiable information (PII) include feedback forms, online reviews, completed surveys, ecommerce transactions and web scraping tools.

Data is a currency

Information from multiple sources is aggregated into vast databases, giving agencies the best chance of drawing inferences and identifying trends among consumers.

Given the number of websites we visit, search engine queries we run and portals we log into, data from multiple sources quickly creates a detailed picture of our lives and tastes.

The more individual pieces of data relating to a person are acquired, the more targeted and nuanced subsequent approaches to that customer can be.

More focused advertising boosts sales and profits, while a beneficial side-effect is the ability for firms to make more informed business decisions.

Companies can often identify personal preferences or intentions before the individuals in question are even aware of them.

Information on specific site visits, app logins or search strings might be worth pennies individually, but it collectively adds up to huge sums of money for the selling parties.

Pretty much everything you do on social media platforms gives away information, which is why platforms like Snapchat are free at the point of use.

YouTube’s vast array of video content is only free because it involves watching adverts, which themselves are curated based on each viewer’s previous activities.

Can I avoid data harvesting?

It’s impossible to use the internet and not leave footprints somewhere. Cookies are unavoidable even if you minimise exposure to them, as we explained above.

Every time you log into an app or resource, your activities from that second onwards are being recorded, so one way to avoid data harvesting is by not creating or using digital accounts.

Leave social media, consider installing a privacy-oriented browser like Opera, and access the internet through a VPN.

Never complete surveys or online forms, which benefit the recipients far more than the contributors, and avoid opening spam emails – the sender will instantly know you did so.

You can find more tips and advice in our guide to staying anonymous online.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!