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Topic Data Protection

Big Brother Brands Report: Which Companies Access Our Personal Data the Most?

Table of contents

We all do it — click ‘accept’ on a cookie pop-up without reading any of the information just so we can see a website sooner. It’s almost become second nature, with those little boxes getting in the way of what we actually want to do.

 

But what do cookie pop-ups actually give websites access to? What data are we giving up every time we click ‘accept,’ and which businesses take advantage of it most?

 

We analyzed the personal data that the world’s biggest brands can potentially  access and track to discover who knows the most about us.

 

By compiling some of the world’s most-used apps and the data they take from you, we’ve characterized some of the worst apps for privacy in 2022.

Data Collection Categories

What data can companies actually collect?

The kind of data companies collect ranges from the things you might expect — like your name, date of birth, and email address — to the more obscure, like your pets, hobbies, height, weight, and even what you like to get up to in the bedroom. They can also store your bank information, as well as links to your social media accounts and the data you share on them.

 

How they might use this data will differ depending on what kind of business they are, but it will often result in targeted advertising and website management.

The companies collecting your face, voice & environment

The companies collecting your face, voice & environment

Companies aren’t only after your personal data — some want to capture your personal appearance by using things like image and voice recognition to help you sign in to their platform.  

 

Of all the brands in our last study that collect data, 6.25% of them had the option to store photos of your face. These include the likes of Airbnb, Instagram, Meta (formerly Facebook), and TikTok.

 

Every time you use a TikTok or an Instagram filter, they track your facial movements to build a picture of your likeness. While it might create some amusing results, it allows these companies to capture and collect your image.  

 

Other apps may go further than just a picture of your face by requesting access to your entire image library. They can use these images to tailor ads specifically to your interests, tracking images of sports, music, nights out, and events you attend to offer you a truly personalized experience.  

 

Some brands even want to know how you sound. Certain companies use voice recognition to make it quicker for you to log into certain accounts, with 4.17% of the brands we reported storing your voice for later use.  

 

Brands like Twitter, Spotify, and Clubhouse use vocal recognition, and while it might not seem too suspicious, if it gets into the wrong hands, it could access very personal information.  

What can brands do with image and voice data?

What can companies tell from image recognition?

Voice and facial recognition is a security feature many banks use when you call them. It makes logging into your account easier, saving you the need to remember your password or secret answer.  

 

However, with some brands collecting your likeness, voice, date of birth, address, and email, hackers will have enough information to access your bank without you even knowing.  

 

They could use this to withdraw funds, make payments or even take out a new credit card in your name. They could also use your interests to create a believable new password, making themselves look just like you.  

 

Your bank would have no suspicions, and the first thing you’d know about it would be when you next checked your account.  

Brands that track you across other apps

What does it mean for an app to collect data that tracks you across apps? Until recently, it wasn’t clear what exactly companies did with your data after collecting it.  

 

Some are storing your data to contribute to more extensive studies about people similar to you. Others store your data and link it directly to your identity — which many of our favorite apps do when we agree to the terms of use. Finally, some apps collect your data to track you across apps to help advertisers reach you based on your interests.  

 

Say you make an Instagram account and agree to the terms of use without reading the fine print (hey, we all do it), then you start shopping online for a pair of shoes. Don’t be surprised when you start seeing ads in your Instagram feed for these shoes almost instantly. Instagram uses this common retargeting technique, especially when you abandon an online cart with items still in it. .

 

Thanks to Apple’s new 2022 Privacy Nutrition Labels, we now have transparency into what companies may do with our data. We can open up the app store and dive deeper into what information they are observing and, generally, what they plan on doing with it. The following sections have data collected from our 2022 study.

The companies collecting your location and contact info

The companies collecting your data to track you

The companies collecting your location and contact information might not be the ones you’d first expect. While you may think of tech behemoths like Meta and Google as the biggest offenders, the top data-collecting culprits are actually Snapchat and Apple.  

 

In this race to the bottom, other top data dealers include Instagram, DoorDash, and Depop.  

 

Social media giants like Snapchat and Instagram track your location and contact info across apps, while Meta does not. But Meta is nowhere near innocent: They’re one of the biggest offenders of tracking data linked to your identity. If you’re unsettled by the data that Meta has access to, change your privacy settings.

 

Apple is just as inclined to monopolize your data. Apple consistently tracks your location and contact information across apps like Safari, Photos, Weather, Maps, and Messaging. While your location is necessary for some features like tagging your photo location or checking the weather, it raises some eyebrows to hear Apple tracks where you send your texts from.

 

Surprisingly, transportation companies like Lyft, Uber, Jet2, American Airlines, Ryanair, and Amtrack don’t track your location across apps, nor your contact information. The one exception is Uber, which only tracks your name.

 

Gaming apps like Subway Surfers, Apex Legends, and Candy Crush collect your location and contact information and access your user content. User content ranges from your photos to your camera, emails, and texts. Gaming apps are notorious for “freemium” business models or offering a free version with paid in-app upgrades. These apps are likely collecting your data to target you for freemium upgrades.  

Apps that collect the most location and contact info

Companies take advantage of the collective habit to agree to various terms and conditions without reading the fine print first. But, when you look closely at the data companies collect, Apple’s Nutrition Labels may just make you lose your appetite.  

What can companies do with location data?

how companies use location data

When we click “I agree” to the terms and conditions, we permit companies to harness our data. Access to your location can arm companies with the knowledge to influence your behavior and prompt purchases.

 

By tracking your location, a brand can learn a lot more about you than you might think. Here are a few examples:

  • Your income level —  Combined with your hobbies or habits to target products in your income bracket.
  • Your current location — To send real-time notifications about nearby shops or restaurants.
  • Your shopping habits — To email you coupons or promo codes.
  • Where you work or go to school — To determine your schedule or track your attendance.
  • Who you spend time with — To influence both of your behaviors.
  • Your routine — To tie it all together at the exact right time.

As the algorithms adapt to your behavior, your location is used to predict what might capture your attention next. Gone are the days of generic broadcast TV ads that have nothing to do with you. Nowadays, every ad is specifically tailored to your interests. Brands can create multiple adverts to cater to different people’s personalities to make a sale or get people to watch their programming.

Geolocation targeting

Geolocation targeting has become all the rage amongst brands and advertisers. From the moment you wake up to the moment you close your eyes, brands can use your every move to serve up targeted ads.  

 

If you listen to music on your phone during a gym workout, then geolocation targeting might flag you as a good candidate for athletic apparel ads or health food stores.

 

If you’re in a relationship and spend a lot of time with your partner, your devices could show that you frequent the same locations. Based on your age, income level, and gender, you may start seeing ads for couples retreats or engagement rings after a while.  

 

Geolocation targeting data can even inform companies on where to build storefronts by looking at traffic patterns and the demographic information of people who frequent the area.  

 

We know this seems a bit “Big Brother,” but there’s no all-seeing entity policing your every move. Instead, companies use a complex web of data points to serve up the most relevant information for you. The question is — are you willing to give up your privacy in favor of convenience?  

 

A lot of this data is anonymized so companies can build a habit profile of you without knowing specifically who you are. If you want to protect your data privacy, you can reduce your digital footprint to control how companies use and share your data, or set up a VPN to lower the chances of being tracked.

What can companies do with contact info?

When you sign up for apps like Uber, Lyft, Venmo, or Instagram, you will usually provide your phone number. This is for security to recover an account or make sign-ins easier in the future. But your contact information is also stored and used for additional purposes.  

 

For example, people in your contact lists may become “suggested friends” on social media apps like Instagram, Meta, or even the astrological app Co-Star.  

 

On the darker side of things, contact lists have been leaked due to unclear privacy settings. For example, using Venmo to send and receive money often publicly displays the recipient and why.

 

Advertisers can also use your phone number or email address to send you targeted promo codes or offers.  

Apps that track the most about you

While it seems like fewer apps are tracking you across the internet, this isn’t quite true. The apps tracking the most about you are tracking data and linking it to your identity.

 

This is where many of your favorite apps dig their heels in and gather as much as possible about your interests and other obscure details you don’t typically think twice about, but these companies do.  

 

We collected the following data in our 2021 study.

Social media collects more data than anybody else

the 5 social media apps that know most about you

Meta is top of the list of data collectors. As a social network, it depends on you giving access to all your details so it can recommend friends to you, let people know it’s your birthday, suggest groups for you to join, and advertise to you.

 

Ads are how Meta makes the most of its money — around 114.93 billion U.S. dollars, to be precise, based on 2021 reports — so the more it knows about you, the more it can sell you. Meta also collects a lot of things you might not be aware you gave away.

 

In fact, out of all the data a business can legally collect about you, Meta collects 79.49%.

 

Instagram comes next on the list. The Meta-owned app collects 69.23% of all available data, such as your hobbies, height, weight, and sexual orientation. Like its parent company, Instagram can use this information for advertising and recommend accounts for you to follow.

 

TikTok, which has launched many viral sensations over the past few years, collects 46.15% of available data, including facial recognition, voice data, and your image library.

Your Google Suite tracks location, viewing history, and hobbies

the 5 Google apps that know most about you

Of all the Google apps in the study, Maps might know the most about its users, tracking 23.08% of all available user data that includes image recognition of your environment and your location.

 

YouTube can collect the same amount of data but has a better idea of your hobbies and interests from your viewing history and preferred content.

 

While the information these apps can access is still valuable, it pales in comparison to the social media giants of Instagram and Meta.

 

Other Google applications such as Docs, Sheets, and Gmail only collect 12.82% of available data, mainly consisting of your name, email, and any languages you can speak or write in.

Your work may be 9 to 5, but work apps collect data 24/7

the 5 work apps that know most about you

These are likely the apps most people spend the majority of their time on, but thankfully the typical go-to workplace apps aren’t taking too much data.  

 

Slack, Zoom, and Google apps only take what they need from you, including email addresses, and the languages you know. Remember, they can also know your live location. Not good if you’re not really “working from home.”

Tinder uses your height, weight, and pets to get you dates

Dating app Tinder collects 61.54% of available data to help match you with your perfect partner. As well as your age, sexual orientation, height, interests, and if you own a pet, it also stores your bank details — making it easier to upsell you its premium option. Tinder Plus gives you unlimited likes and the chance to swipe back just in case you’ve missed the love of your life.

 

However, beyond trying to get you coupled up, Tinder also tracks how you use different social media platforms if you link your accounts. Tinder also collects information on how you interact with other users you interact with, the exchanges between them, and the number of messages you send and receive.  

Grindr collects almost as much information, with 58.97% stored as you look for love.  

Retailers like Amazon use the LEAST amount of data to target you.

 

Despite being the biggest online retailer in the world (and spending around $11 billion on advertising in 2019,) Amazon only collects a fraction of data compared to other businesses, 23.08%.

 

Beyond the obvious, like your name, email address, home address, and bank details, it collects little else other than what it needs to run its business.

 

What it does do is track how you use its site. It monitors the products you look at, the things you buy, and the reviews you leave, helping it promote new products to you that match your interests.

 

General retail came lowest on our list of data-loving companies. IKEA (23.08%), Nike (25.64%) and Depop (25.64) all store your name, email address and home address, along with your bank details to make online purchases easier, but only Nike and Depop store your height and weight to help them offer you more appropriate clothes.

Spotify uses your social media, interests, & playlists to decide what you should listen to

The music streaming site Spotify collects 35.90% of your data, tapping into your social media profiles to understand your interests and hobbies. If you’ve ever been to a gig and shared a photo of it on Instagram only to find that band in your Spotify recommendations, now you know why.

 

It also knows the music you listen to, enabling the service to create playlists based on your tastes. Spotify’s end-of-year roundups include all the songs you’ve been listening to, and lets you look back on the last 12 months of hits (and occasional misses).

 

Likewise, Netflix knows the kind of shows you watch so it can recommend similar titles. It gives programs a “Match Rating,” letting you see how likely you are to enjoy them depending on what you’ve seen. It’s designed to gather data to give you a better user experience, meaning you’ll keep coming back again and again to discover more shows it’s found for you.

 

Spotify and Netflix are good examples of data collection that people don’t mind. As with most sites, this information is used to learn about you to improve your experience, tailoring the platform to suit your needs.  

100% of companies could store your email address

Of the companies we asked, 100% of them could request and store your email address and possibly use it to stay in touch or for future marketing. An email address is the basic data companies will request from you — any brand you’ve signed up for, social media you’re connected tol or shop you’ve bought from will have an email address on file.

 

They might never use it or might use it to send you weekly emails that you’ll either find interesting or send straight to your junk mail.

15% of companies know how much you weigh

A question you should never ask on a date is one 15.25% of businesses will ask when you first sign up. Brands such as Slimming World, Strava, and Nike all want to know it for obvious reasons, but why Credit Karma and Instagram ask for it is anyone’s guess.

Can our data come back to haunt us?

Given the wealth of data we share with businesses, it’d be no surprise to see some things revealed about us that we’d rather were kept private. However, thanks to GDPR (and some very secure cybersecurity software) what companies can actually do with your data is quite limited.  

 

Beyond marketing to you and using your data to manage their website, a business can’t do much more. You shouldn’t get cold calls from businesses you’ve never spoken to, for example, or find your details are sold. Your data is protected by the policies companies are forced to sign up to, and if they break these rules, they could face big fines.

What happens with collected data

When you permit apps to collect your data, you also give them permission to do with it as they please. While your data may be used to increase an app's functionality, more often than not it can be shared and sold to third parties.  

 

Have you ever heard the saying “if the service is free, you’re the product”? The most basic apps you download, take advantage of all they can about your behaviors to generate their revenue. These apps sell your data to third parties who could use it to advertise you products or services.  

 

It’s important to remain skeptical of an app’s intent to gain access to your data and be mindful that you could be at risk when you don’t. Some apps leave you vulnerable to phishing or hacking due to poor encryption practices.

Want to make your privacy extra protected?

Sharing any data comes with a risk. If you don't think this or that particular app's benefits are worth the trade, you may want to consider deleting the app for good.  

 

However, if you want to make sure your data is extra secure, you'll need cybersecurity software to help protect against viruses, identity theft, and more.

There is a way you can turn off app tracking on your iPhone. Read Clario’s guide to find out how.  

Methodology

Analysis of 2021 image recognition data: Image Recognition Data

We analysed 58 apps across various sectors to see which permissions they asked consumers for in their terms and conditions and privacy agreements. Each piece of information requested by any app was turned into a characteristic, totalling 45 data points. This allowed us to rank the data that companies can collect their customers across sectors, and attribute a percentage of data used by the app. While the information presented here is valid at the time of this report’s publication, the scope of personal data that applications process may change in the future.

Analysis of 2022 : Data used to track you

We sourced our data from Apple’s privacy nutition labels. We analysed data accessible in each app available within the App store. Apple has broken data collected into three categories:  

  • Data used to track you (then shared across apps, ads, and companies)
  • Data linked your identity (data is collected but not shared)
  • And data not linked to you (collected and grouped with larger stats)

Using the data available, we focused on apps that track you across different apps, ads, and companies. We recorded the data and grouped apps based on categories, including  

  • Apple-owned
  • Dating apps
  • Finance
  • Food Delivery
  • Gaming
  • Google-owned
  • Health and Fitness
  • Photo editing
  • Shopping
  • Social
  • Streaming
  • Transportation  
  • Work and Productivity

Then, we applied a weighted score based on the level of personal details tracked.

 

For instance, precise location was weighted heavier than coarse location. Then we began to uncover what might be behind the reasoning for why an app may track your location or contact info to create a larger picture of how it impacts.

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