Just enter your name and email and voila - you're free to use it. But at what cost? We delve into the belly of the beast and discuss how those free products aren't actually that free.

He is there. Watching. Silently. Really.
He is there. Watching. Silently. Really. (Getty Images)

Knowing things you don’t need to know is irresistible. From office gossip to the holiday plans of your distant cousin’s neighbour’s dog (thank you for that one, Mark) we have an insatiable thirst for... data. 

And we aren't the only ones who want these telling details. Tech companies love them. Advertisers love them. Nation-states love them. It’s all good fun, until you realise you are the one whose information is being harvested, sold and used.

Speaking of gossip, what used to be the province of the water cooler or a visit to the hairdresser these days is more likely to involve that little green and white icon on your phone. Yes, we're of course talking about WhatsApp (WeChat, if you happen to be in China), the ubiquitous app that gives you headaches trying to not say the wrong thing in the wrong group because eight people can apparently be in an infinite number of different combinations of groups. 

What's up with WhatsApp?

So what’s going on with WhatsApp? Its CEO, Jan Koum, announced he's leaving WhatsApp (not the app but the company). According to this story from The Washington Post, the main reason for his departure is Facebook’s attempts to use personal data and weakening the app's end-to-end encryption.

Apparently, Koum couldn’t take it anymore. He was "feeling emotional" when he wrote about his decision to take some time off and to do some other things, like "collecting rare air-cooled Porsches.” Who are we to judge? We would probably do the same if we had that kind of money and could afford to have a conscience.

Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014. Given WhatsApp hit 1.5 billion monthly active users, there's no doubt Facebook will want to integrate WhatsApp with its other platforms and “rent” its enormous trove of personal data to third parties.

Jan Koum’s exit shows that the internal resistance against using personal data is weakening. Can a  “WhatsApp Analytica” scandal be that far away?

When you post an emotional message, but forget you're Facebook friends with your bosses.
When you post an emotional message, but forget you're Facebook friends with your bosses. (Jan Koum's Public Facebook Profile)

Despite the attention Facebook has received and continues to receive, it's not like Facebook is the only bad player on the field. It’s been revealed that Twitter also sold Cambridge Analytica access to its data, according to Bloomberg.

Should we be surprised?

Here's the deal. Whenever you use a free service online, chances are you're actually paying with your personal data. The basic business plan for not making users pay is to commoditise that data through ads bought on a site. Advertisers rent space on what to them is a virtual billboard. And they treat any traffic generated as a commodity. Something to be bought and sold.

It's exactly the same business model as commercial television has perfected. They're buying and selling your eyeballs, i.e. your attention. Except in the case of the web, it's eyeballs, likes, links (including to other eyeballs), etc.

Whatever you have in one way or another put online about yourself is potentially marketable in terms of bringing to your attention an ad. increasingly designed just for you. And the more they know about you, the more that ad. – or in the case of Cambridge Analytica that political campaign – can be refined, with the ultimate aim to hit your interest buttons with a precision strike. 

The mechanics of the process

But how does it all work? Let's take Google and Apple. Google is tracking your search activity, video history and location history unless you opt out. Based on your activities, it generates your profile and sends it to advertisers. 

Even if you aren't logged in and thinking that you are privately browsing, that anonymous information is stored through the caching system and sent to the advertisers. That's the main reason why, when you search for that shoe you really like, it's all over the web all of a sudden.

In fact, you can check your own profile here.  For Apple, there's a feature called "significant locations." It tracks everywhere you go, stores it with the date, hour and exact location. You can even go to your phone or computer to check it out from privacy settings of your device.

So anywhere you see ads, sponsored posts, promoted content is possibly collecting some data from you. It can be things like your age and gender, maybe your location as well. That way an advertiser can target 55-year-old Liverpool fans who live in Egypt (a Mo Salah reference, but we don't watch enough football to know a good reference but he is quite popular).

There's a scale of how messed up this practice can get and Facebook, though far into the “pretty messed up” side, isn't the only one doing this kind of thing.

The solution

There really isn't anything new going on here in terms of how advertising works, its incessant need to know about you to design ads. that appeal to you. What is new is the scale of it on the web, the range of data you've put out there, and the fact that until fairly recently most of you weren't that aware of how it was being harvested and used.

So, the only real question is how comfortable are you with so much of you being out there? And if you're not comfortable, are you willing to pay the downside of missing a good bargain at your favourite store if you opt out?

Meanwhile, he IS there, watching, silently, really.