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How do big brands know us so well?

As you reach for the credit card to revel in the Black Friday offers this month, take a moment to consider the way big brands connect with us in today’s online world. The biggest contributing factor is data collection: It’s the gateway to how, and why, big brands know exactly where to dangle their products.

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Think about it, our social media profiles and Google searches know exactly what it is we are looking for before we even know it ourselves. Which calls into question - what exactly do brands know about us? A study by Forrester reveals that 36% of marketers actively use big data to improve their strategies.

Big data includes analytics and numbers on what performs well, what drives traffic to their sites, where they get the most views, etc. This gives brands an advantage - having unique data can help them understand their market and audience far better. They can then come up with data-driven strategies that allow them to communicate better with audiences based on what they know.

Additionally, with the help of technological advances such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), digital marketing has taken strides in gaining an even deeper understanding of its customers and optimising marketing campaigns. All those content recommendations on YouTube and Netflix are a great example of this, as AI-based interpretation of consumer data continually adapts to your likes and dislikes and tailors recommendations in real-time.

Some data that big companies know can be a little unnerving

While basic data such as our name, age, and location make sense in the context of social media or online purchases, the below 2020 infographic by Digital Information World shows big companies like Amazon, Google and TikTok know a lot more than we may realise - from credit card numbers to phone calls, and our personal messages.

Facebook, for example, knows not just who your friends are, where you’ve been, but also religious and political views, ethnicity, and even income level. If you have an Alexa or Google Home, these devices can store a full history of your searches, along with audio recordings of your voice.

Data Collection Infographic

Now that you’re aware of the pieces of data brands know about you, it can be a worry - especially considering the number of breaches high-value companies go through regularly. Here are some big brand data breaches over the last few years...

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Adidas - June 2018: Hackers put a target on the fashion industry when Adidas became aware that an unauthorised party claimed to have acquired limited data associated with certain Adidas consumers.

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Facebook - March 2019: The social media giant encountered a data breach that involved 600 million passwords stored in plain text displayed internally to over 20,000 employees. And again in April 2020, around the time COVID-19 protocols were starting to take effect, more than 267 million Facebook profiles popped up for sale on the Dark Web - for the princely sum of $600.

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Nintendo - April 2020: Nintendo reported that 160,000 users were affected by a mass account hijacking that leveraged the company’s NNID legacy login system. The hijacking gave data hackers access to payment services linked to these accounts, including PayPal accounts or credit cards the cybercriminals used to make unsolicited digital purchases.

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Guess - Feb 2021: The fashion brand discloses a data breach after a ransomware attack. According to the breach notifications, information exposed in the attack includes personal and financial.

Keep and maintain your privacy online using our top 5 tips:

1. Have a strong password and enable two-factor authentication.

2. Use a private browser. If you’re familiar with incognito mode, that’s what we mean. Your history won’t be saved and websites can’t track you.

3. Use a VPN. A virtual private network (VPN) allows you to connect to websites through a remote server, which gives you privacy by hiding your Internet behaviour.

4. Review permissions for mobile apps. Apps typically ask for permission before you can use them, such as access to your camera, contacts, etc. Opt-out of some of these permissions.

5. Avoid oversharing online. A single social post is enough for brands to know what you like, where you are, and what you’re up to. Talking about your daily activities is a huge beacon for brands and malicious hackers alike.

While it may not be possible to totally control the data that is collected without leaving the internet entirely, taking steps to understand why some apps or platforms need your information will help you ensure that most of your data is private. Our tips are no guarantee that your digital privacy is locked down completely, but they’re a step in the right direction.

Stay safe and happy shopping!


GoldPhish educates end-users on the cyber threat and helps build more secure organisations with awareness training and phishing simulation

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