When you're online, you will usually share some information about yourself, also known as your data, with the websites and services you use.
This data can be used in lots of ways. Mostly, it’s done to help improve your online experience. But it’s helpful to know about all the possible uses and how to protect your data from being used and shared in ways that you’re not happy with.
Ofcom’s purpose is to make communications work for everyone. Our Making Sense of Media programme is how we fulfil our duty to research and promote media literacy, including promoting an understanding of what is happening online. Understanding how and why your data is collected and used can help you to make informed choices and stay safe online.
Every time you visit a website, use an app on your phone or tablet, or even use a smart TV or other home device that connects to the internet, you are making decisions about how to share your data, and who with, even though you might not be thinking about it.
As well as the occasions when you provide data directly and knowingly, for example by filling in an online form, some websites and services collect data based on how you use them. When you visit a web page, your web browser might download and save small pieces of information known as ‘cookies’. These can be used to identify you as you visit different pages or sites.
Your data can also be bought from third parties. This can happen when your data is publicly available, or when you have provided consent for companies that collect your data to share it. Your data can also be processed to make predictions about information you have not provided, like your income or your interests. In the UK, online service providers must have your consent or other legitimate reasons to process your personal data under the General Data Protection Regulation.
Some websites and services rely on your data to work well. This could be a social network storing the contact details that you and your friends provide so you can communicate with each other, an online store collecting your address during a transaction to know where to send your purchases, or a taxi app collecting your location so that it can tell the driver where to pick you up.
Online services might use your data as part of improving or personalising the services that you use. For example:
Some websites, apps or services display ads to users. These can help websites make money, which sometimes means they can offer themselves as free to use.
Usually, the ads you see will be chosen specifically for you, using your data to work out which ads are most likely to appeal to you. This can include information about products you’ve previously bought, websites you have visited, products you have browsed and even predictions about your interests.
This is called targeted advertising and it means different people are likely to see different online ads, and sometimes the same ad might seem to follow you around online.
If you have concerns about sharing your data, it can help to understand your rights. The Information Commissioners’ Office is the UK's independent body set up to uphold information rights. Its ‘Your Data Matters’ information sheets have information that could help.
There are several websites that provide advice about data that you might find useful.