Millions of people around the world frequent survey sites as a means of earning a little extra cash or getting access to special deals on products and services. They think little of what they are doing every time they fill out a survey. Little do they know that survey sites are the ultimate data collection tool for an unsuspecting public all too willing to give away personal information.

Thanks to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and a handful of similar laws, any company collecting personal data must be more upfront about it. This includes survey sites. But with consumers seemingly so unconcerned about their own data, most of the regulations put in place are relatively meaningless. They look good on paper, but they do not accomplish much in the real world.

Survey Sites Want Your Data

Even without data protections in place, it should be obvious that survey sites want your data. They are openly asking for it. A good number of them require you to sign up for a free membership. During the sign-up process, they allegedly make you aware of how they use your data by way of an appropriate policy you are required to agree to. Then it’s off to the races.

Those sites store your personal data for as long as you remain a member. Every time you fill out a new survey, the system couples your personal data with your responses to the survey. Everything is bundled together and sold to advertisers.

Some survey sites do not require membership sign-up. That doesn’t stop them from collecting personal data by other means, including cookies. All they have to do to maintain regulatory compliance is offer a cookie warning and allow users to view their cookie policies.

As Worthless as Pop-Ups

The interesting thing about cookie warnings is that they have become as useless as pop-up ads. Remember back in the 1990s when pop-ups first became a thing? We eventually got so tired of them that we began ignoring them. And now there are pop-up blockers that work so well that it is really not worth the effort for website developers to continue creating pop-ups.

Cookie warnings have become much the same thing. Not convinced? Be honest with yourself: how frequently do you read cookie policies when visiting a website for the first time? If you’re like almost everyone else, you don’t. You just click the ‘I agree’ button and move on. By clicking that button, you have agreed to allow first- and third-party cookies to be stored on your computer or phone.

First Party Cookies

First-party cookies are those placed on your device by the owner of the website you are visiting. They are typically used to remember things like your location, the time and date of your last visit, and how you used the site the last time you were there. Website owners claim that first-party cookies are designed to enhance your browsing experience. Feel free to roll your eyes at will.

Third-party cookies are placed on your device by organizations separate from the site you are visiting. In some cases, these third parties are advertisers whose ads appear on your screen. Other times they are organizations you don’t even know are paying attention.

For example, did you know that Facebook works with all sorts of website owners to track your movements online? Facebook can install a third-party cookie on your device using a website that has nothing to do with social media. With that cookie, they can track all of your online movement and send the data back to their servers for processing.

Survey Sites Are Especially Vulnerable

The interesting thing about survey sites is that they are especially vulnerable to cookie abuse. A typical survey site places first-party cookies on devices to better help them do what they do. But every company that uses a survey site to collect consumer information is also placing cookies. They all have their third-party affiliates who place even more.

Survey sites do not get as much scrutiny from data protection advocates because they are open in the business of collecting data. It is generally accepted that people who participate in surveys know their data is being harvested and have no problem with it.

On the other hand, companies not directly involved in the data collection business increasingly find themselves under the watchful eye of the government. In the EU, an entire industry rooted in GDPR consultancy services has emerged for that very reason.

Trading Data for Convenience

Regardless of your position on data privacy laws, one thing cannot be denied: the world has voluntarily created the Big Data behemoth in the name of convenience. Everything we do online contributes to it. The only way to stop it is to cease utilizing free online services.

Those who willingly use free email services, for example, are enabling the Big Data beast by allowing their email providers to harvest and sell their data. How do you think Google pays for Gmail? How do you think they pay for the bandwidth it takes to run YouTube?

We want all of this free stuff without considering that nothing is truly free. We might not pay for free services with bills and coins, but we pay for it with our data. Moreover, it is the data collection model that encourages companies to collect and sell our data even if data is not their primary business.

Survey sites are the ultimate data collection tool because their sole reason for existing is to do what they do. Yet there are other organizations whose businesses have nothing to do with data collection. They still collect and sell data because the model exists. And the model only exists because we use free services like Google and Facebook.

Keep this in mind next time you agree to take an online survey. Go ahead and fill out all the surveys you want. You have every right to do so. Just remember that you are contributing to the monster that is Big Data. And don’t forget this: you can’t have it both ways. You cannot feed the beast and then expect it to be controlled. At some point, the beast gets too big and powerful.