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How is personal data tracked and sold?

How is personal data tracked and sold?

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How long do service providers retain your data, and what happens to the information you release as an online user?

Have you ever wondered how much information you allow your mobile phone applications to access, where it goes, or how valuable it is for companies?

With the recent surge in connective platforms, such as signing in for a product service with your Facebook or Twitter account, online users enable third-party companies to gain a wider window in to our digital lives. From searches performed to product preferences, information on whom we are connected with and what services we use, a wealth of information is now available for corporations and service providers to use within tailored advertising and consumer analysis.

The recent media storm caused by Path storing the address book details of users within its servers shed light on practices that companies implement -- but are not necessarily regulated. The address book details stored on a user's smartphone became harvested by Path through an 'Add Friends' feature, without explicit consent of the user, and became stored on external servers.

The company apologized rapidly in a desperate damage control limitation exercise, admitting that 'the way we had designed our 'Add Friends' feature was wrong'. The stored information was later deleted.

On the heels of this, iOS developers are now under scrutiny concerning what information is stored on external servers; and what data an individual user actually owns -- and can therefore consent for companies to access and use.

The video below is called Network, and was created by Michael Rigley, a designer from San Francisco. It demonstrates how this data may be used or stored by different Internet service providers in an interesting, animated format.

By tracking the life of a multi-media message (MMS), 28,000 of which are sent every second, it explains how an average user allows service provides to collect an average of 736 pieces of data accessed about them every day.

This data can include your number, the receiver, time and date, duration, the size of data transmitted, and the subsequent cost.

Different service providers retain this data for different durations:

  • Verizon - 12 months;
  • AT&T - 84 months;
  • Sprint - 24 months;
  • T-mobile - 60 months.

The creator notes that the majority of online and mobile users will have more than a million pieces of data stored by their service providers over the course of approximately four years.

It's no wonder this kind of information is valuable to companies; who can track changing preferences, trends and product use in order to target advertisements to individual users.

Image credit: Michael Rigley

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure