Every day when you wake up, you take your phone to check whether someone had called you or sent you a text message. Of course, you can’t leave your bed without switching on your mobile data to see what is going on in the social media. But have you ever thought of how much footprints you leave on the internet?

Whether we know or we don’t, we generate millions of terabytes of data each day. Giant tech companies such as Google and Facebook produce addictive free apps such as Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp among many others. Someone once said, if you don’t pay for it, you are the one being used. These giant tech companies didn’t tell you one thing: they collect data in your apps. Everywhere you visit, every picture you click, everything you type is stored and analyzed to be used somewhere sometime. 

Fifty years ago, data meant nothing to anybody, just like the way owning land meant nothing to Africans three hundred years ago; the land was anybody’s and no body’s. Now, everything has changed. Possessing data means more than just having someone else’s details. It means having access to his life, his mind, his security.

“When someone knows your movements online, his reparation can go beyond just having access to your data,” says Joshua Mabina, a freelance software engineer.

But how valuable is your personal information to some stranger living thousands of miles away from you?

Our online behavior very much defines our actual lives. The videos we watch, the song we listen or skip, the product we search or purchase, the film we watch, etc. Our browsers (Chrome, Mozila Firefox, Opera, etc.) use cookies which are stored in browsers every time you visit a website. The web owners then store your ‘movements’ on their website for the purpose of improving their website services next time you visit again.

All this information is used by tech companies to better their products and services. Advertising companies use this data to suggest products that they think you might be interested to buy. Politicians use this data to estimate how many votes they may get. Police use this data to track and catch the lawbreakers. Good thing, isn’t it?

The 2008 Obama campaigns, for instance, designed a tool in which people would predict how likely they would cast a ballot, and whether or not they supported him. The campaign team was so confident that one of the campaign consultants was quoted saying that they were confident about who was going to vote for Obama before they decided. 

This is not a new concept, politicians have always used data to predict the election results, like in the campaign rallies, public opinions, and media influence. What is shocking, however, is the rate at which the giant tech companies have invested in collecting data they have used to influence the election result. The 2016 Cambridge Analytica saga is a good example of this scenario. This is where the UK-based data analytics firm was involved in the theory that it had played an important role in the US election. The company, it was revealed, contained data of more than 220 million Americans culled from Facebook and other data purchased from data mining companies.

The problem arises when the use of data accumulated over a period of time, which, of course, is private and sensitive, is essential in affecting political influence and undermining the democratic process. Personal traits can be used to predict the action of an individual.

There is also a security concern when it comes to accumulating mass data. Databases can get hacked, leaked, stolen or shared, as it happened in the US 2016 election where political candidates shared the database of their supporters.

Some of us still believe that online is a secure place to store our personal and sensitive data, simply because cloud drives are encrypted and no-one can break into ‘online safe box.’ But the cloud storage companies use encryption keys to secure the data, which of course, can get hacked like any other data storage system.

What should we do now? Should we stop using social media? Should we stop uploading our data to cloud drives? Should we stop using emails because they aren’t safe? Of course not. Here is a piece of advice. 

First, create complex passwords. These will prevent hackers to easily get into your system. Strong password includes words in both capital and small letters, numbers and characters. For example, pGd486-HWY can be considered a strong password. Additionally, use different password for each account, like password for Facebook account should be different from your Twitter account. This is to prevent the possibility of all accounts to be breached once a hacker gets access to one of your account. This includes your digital bank password too.

We all like free Wi-Fi, don’t we? On the public areas, free Wi-Fi’s are tempting to use. But the reality is, they are insecure. It is very easy for hackers to access your device information or your data when you are using public Wi-Fi. The best advice here is to use the Virtual Private Network (VPN). This is a software that helps to create secure connection on the internet. However, most VPNs do not come for free. But better safe than sorry.

How many times have we clicked on links or downloaded attachments on the emails without even considering what they are? Be advised: you are put to a vulnerable place by the links you click. Most of the hackers today use phony free offers to lure you to click and reveal your personal information. Don’t download every attachment sent in your email. Just download from the sender you trust. In addition, make sure you scan before downloading.

I ask some of the technology consumers if they are aware of their sensitive data online. Most of them agree that they pay very little attention to who has their data online or who use them. However, Stephen, a Mikocheni resident in Dar es Salaam, says that he always read terms and conditions before he agrees to them. “If they are too long, I skip!”

Some even go further to suggest not providing accurate data when it comes to their safety. “You never know who wants your data for. Just give wrong information; name, age, e-mail, gender, etc. just to be on the safe side,” says David Rweyemamu, a recent graduate at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Just as any good thing has its other side, technology has its other side too. When it comes to data, it directly involves our personal lives. Being careful is not an option anymore. “If you become a target, your life might be in danger, especially when they profile you,” says Mr. Mabina. Profiling is when someone compiles your online data. “What you are doing online will always help someone who is after you. You have to agree to give your personal data only to someone you trust.” And that is how we should go.

Written by Sam Gidori, a student at the University of Dar es Salaam pursuing BA in Mass Communication. Besides writing, he also produces and edit various television and radio programs at Mlimani Media.

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