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Data Harvesting: What is it and how can it affect you?

by Josef Kafka

Data harvesting is a term that we are hearing more and more about in the headlines, especially concerning the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal. But what actually is data harvesting? And how does it impact you, your security and privacy? At 1st Call Detectives, our client’s privacy and security is a top priority for us, so we’ve taken a closer look at what data harvesting is and how it might impact you.

What is Data Harvesting?

Data harvesting can be defined as a way of gathering and storing information, with the hope that it will become valuable. There are different processes that can be used to harvest data, from a simple screenshot and taking notes from Twitter pages to malicious bots which automatically extract data in large quantities from websites. This large amount of data can be used alongside other databases to find trends, information and details about a person, from their political views to their shopping habits. It can also be used to see wider online trends, target specific markets and for research purposes.

Why use data harvesting methods?

Your information has value. Details of your online weekly shopping list allow marketers to show you ads that will appeal to you. Or the purpose may be more sinister: your online passwords allow hackers to access online bank information or use your details for identity theft.

Data harvesting is a cheap and easy way to collect large amounts of data that can then be sorted and used for a number of purposes. It may even have benefits for researchers. For example, in 2010, programmer Pete Warden used data harvesting to get information from 210 million Facebook profiles to look for trends and patterns in the USA. He didn’t ask for permission from Facebook and had to delete all the data. The Cambridge Analytica Scandal in early 2018 revealed a huge data breach, where data was harvested with software that predicted and influenced peoples voting decisions in the US elections and the Brexit vote.

How does data harvesting work?

There are a few different methods of data harvesting. Automatic data harvesting run by bots and programmes is the biggest concern of tech companies. It can be surprisingly easy for developers to harvest data using the site’s API when it comes to public information on Facebook. Online, you’ll find plenty of businesses offering data harvesting apps and services. The Cambridge Analytica data was gathered using an app called thisisyourdigitallife where users agreed to have their data collected for ‘academic use’. The problem was that the data of their friends was also collected and used, which meant that data was obtained illegally and used to influence peoples political decisions. Bad news for democracy.

What are the risks of data harvesting?


Data harvesting can be used to gain large amounts of data from different sources, such as social media, online shopping and company databases. Concern arises when these databases are used in tandem so that specific information about individuals can be pieced together, providing a lot of sensitive information about someone. This could be used for more sinister purposes such as by criminal organisations, identity thieves and hackers. Risks can also increase when dealing with sensitive information: medical records and financial information could potentially be used against you.

What can I do?

Internet users are calling for more and more protection from these kinds of threats, and tech companies are under more pressure than ever to keep their databases secure and protect users information. Simply clicking ‘yes’ when it comes to privacy policies and data usage is a risky move, and it’s always important to read terms and conditions and make sure you’re not agreeing to your information being used for purposes you don’t want.

There have been discussions in government about how to regulate these kinds of data harvesting methods and new regulations might help with this. However, there are still things you can do to protect yourself online, without relying on companies and governments to do so. We’ve looked at this in detail at 1st Call Detectives, and have some articles that are helpful for keeping safe online. Read up on our guide to identity theft, guide to staying safe whilst using social media and our 6 practical steps to keep your online browsing secure. The main thing to keep in mind is protecting your personal information: using different passwords, keeping your social media profiles private, and reading terms and conditions when installing new apps.

1st Call Detectives

If you’re worried that someone might have gotten hold of your personal information or that you’ve been the victim of fraud, you can contact 1st Call detectives to have a look at your case and explain your concerns to experts. We offer a wide range of services, from covert surveillance and accident investigation to verifying video content. Our expert detectives are committed to maintaining your privacy and being as discreet and professional as possible.

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