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Can you control how your data is collected online?

1st November 2018 - Alex McCready
Can you control how your data is collected online?

We all know that data is big business. Companies are vying to gather as much information about you or me as possible based on our online habits. However, in a post-GDPR world, how internet companies gather this data is still a contentious topic. One of the most hotly contended areas concerns how big internet companies are using cookies to track our behaviour online.

However, Google and other UK data controllers will have breathed a sigh of relief. Last month, the English High Court decided that if data controllers such as Google misuse our data we can only seek compensation from them if we have suffered damage.

The case concerned an application for compensation arising from the so-called Safari Workaround, by which Google allegedly used its Double Click technology on the iPhone Safari browser to obtain information about users internet usage through its cookies without their consent or knowledge. The claimants argued this breached data protection legislation and sought compensation.

In theory, under English law individuals can obtain compensation if they suffer damage arising from a breach of data protection legislation. That damage can be pecuniary (i.e. financial loss) or the suffering of emotional distress. However, in this case, the claimants didnt even try to argue damage of any sort – they argued the sheer fact of the breach was sufficient. The English High Court disagreed.

So what lesson should would-be claimants learn from this?

Simply that when pleading your case, you must set out how the damage has flowed from the breach.

So what does the future hold?

In a future where data is king, there will inevitably be many more David vs Goliath battles between individuals and online platforms about the (mis)use of our data. Indeed, Fortune recently reported that Twitter is being investigated by Irish privacy authorities over its refusal to give a user information about how it tracks him when he clicks on links in tweets.

For many, the fact that companies monitor our online behaviour via cookies has become a fact of life. Indeed, some of us may even like the expediency of targeted advertising. But those who would like to retain a bit more control over how their data is collected should read-on…

1. Clear the decks: Delete the cookies you already have in your browser settings. For example, on Google Chrome this can be done by:

a. Clicking on the three-dot menu icon in the upper right-hand corner. Select Settings.

b. Scroll down and select Advanced which will produce an additional drop-down menu.

c. At the bottom of the Privacy and security menu select Clear browsing data. You can then choose to delete just the cookies or all browsing history and select how far back in time you go. Click the Clear Data button once youre happy.

2. Manage your cookies: You can manage how cookies are saved going forward. Go to the Privacy and Security menu (by following steps (a) and (b) above) and click on Content Settings which should be listed second from the bottom. Then click on Cookies. In that panel will be a drop-down list of options for the storage of cookies. You can also decide whether you want to block third-party cookies or not.

3. Browse in private: Not everyone knows that its possible to browse privately on search engines. For example, on Google Chrome to can hit Ctrl+Shift+N and go Incognito. That will prevent the Google Chrome browser from saving information on pages youve visited, what youve searched for, cookies and information entered on forms. Warning: Your activity might still be visible to the websites you visit though.

4. Privacy on social media: make sure youve checked your Privacy settings on sites like Facebook and Instagram are at the highest level of security. For example, on Facebook you can also turn-off targeted ads by going to the Settings panel and clicking on the Ad Settings section and turning off online interest-based ads.

5. Do Not Track: (DNT) is a browser setting that sends a message to websites and advertising networks requesting that they dont track the user. It allows you to block sites from sharing your personal information, like browsing habits, to a third party. Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari provide DNT settings. To activate the feature, go to "Tools" in the menu bar and click "Options" at the bottom. You can find out more, here.

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