The amount of data being collected by app developers has become a hot topic in recent months. Apple recently announced plans to force developers to declare how much personal information is collected by their apps sparking a fierce debate.

Virtually all apps collect personal data in some way – particularly those that are free to download and use. The information collected is then used to sell targeted advertising, allowing the developer to earn some money from their apps.

Normally this data collection is restricted to what we do online – the websites we visit, the social media posts we interact with, the devices we use, our GPS coordinates etc. But in their quest to better understand customers, some marketers and businesses are going much further into our personal lives than we realise.

The Third Party Factor

As part of their strategy to better understand their customers, and to keep them engaged with their service, betting app Sky Bet appears to have gone much further. One customer, a self-confessed problem gambler, sent a GDPR request to learn more about the data Sky Bet had collected – and he was shocked by the outcome.

Sky Bet had hired a third-party data broker to collect additional information about ‘valuable’ clients so they could understand how to better target these people. The broker then carried out several offline searches to build a complete dossier about each individual.

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For the gambler in question, Sky Bet knew that he had a £108,000 mortgage. They also knew that he had taken out two loans totalling more than £50,000 to cover his gambling problem. This information was combined with insights about the events he liked to gamble on to create special deals and offers to keep him coming back.

The gambler believes that Sky Bet not only knew he had a dangerous addiction, but that they were actively encouraging him to continue staking money he couldn’t afford to lose.

Can you protect yourself?

The case of the gambler highlights the darker side of modern marketing methods. Collecting vast amounts of data allows marketers to uncover – and potentially exploit – our deepest secrets and damaging habits.

Can we prevent this data collection? Probably not completely, but there are ways to better protect ourselves.

First, always read the terms and conditions of the apps you download. Yes, they are long, complicated and frightening – but you will know if you are agreeing to intrusive surveillance before using the app. Apple’s new App Store Privacy Labels make things much easier to understand if you own an iPhone, iPad or Mac computer.

When signing up for new services, consider registering with a fake name or disposable email address. Unless there is a specific reason to supply personally identifiable information (like your delivery address for receiving online orders), do you really need to give marketers you most sensitive data.

Finally, install adblocking software on your devices. This will help to block many of the scripts and cookies that marketers use to track your web activity. You can strengthen protection further still using a VPN that allows you to surf the web anonymously.

Online tracking and web profiling may be one of the greatest threats to our privacy we have ever faced. And as the experience of the Sky Bet gambler shows, tracking can be misused in life-changing ways. Perhaps it is time for us to take back control of our data.

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