If you thought the Facebook data harvesting scandal was bad, you probably don’t live in Russia.
For many Russians reading about the story, it was a case of “welcome to our world.”
Data harvesting is a booming and highly competitive business here, with a host of companies offering ways of “scraping” up details on your likes, shares and comments for commercial gain, with barely any regulatory or legislative control.
There are now companies offering advertisers—and anyone else who can pay—the ability to target almost any group imaginable.
For instance, one Russian online giant, Mail.ru, allows companies to target offers at married men who have a child aged 1-3, or—according to its database—the 6.5 million Russians who are “introverted.” And just like the online leverage Facebook enjoys from owning services such as Instagram and WhatsApp, Mail.ru has similar power in Russia as the owner of the two biggest domestic social media networks—Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki.
You can hire one of the many Russian firms specializing in “parsing” — the automated collection of social media data by bots. These bots will scour accounts across several social media networks and collect every piece of publicly available online activity, from likes, shares and comments to location “check-ins”.
One such firm is Moscow-based “Social Data Hub.” It proudly lists the Russian government as a client and boasts that it has a copy of the activity on every Russian social media network going back for the past seven years.
But their online hoovering also includes all the traffic generated by Russian-based users of U.S. and other international online giants such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. The company also covers sites such as the Tinder dating app, and the Airbnb accommodation service. What this means in practice, for example, is that some swipes on Tinder profiles could actually have been made by bots.
Codaru.com tried out the “parsing” capabilities of one of these companies, to find out just how much they know about Russians. And it’s surprisingly cheap. For one ruble (slightly more than one U.S. cent), you get a complete copy of someone’s online profile (including their name, home region, phone number and date of birth), with a minimum order of 1000 accounts.
Tracking services also play a big role in following Russian internet users around. An estimated 80 per cent of all websites worldwide employ some kind of tracking software—tiny pieces of code embedded in the site — to monitor their visitors’ activities. The most common is Google Analytics, estimated to be present on around 50 per cent of all the websites in the world.
But Russian equivalents have a powerful hold on the domestic sphere. Yandex.Metrika, run by the country’s number 1 search engine, has a 52 per cent market share. Mail.ru’s tracking software is ranked second.
So if you search for a flight to the Siberian city of Irkutsk, say, an ad for a local hotel may pop up on your Vkontakte profile, because of the embedded tracker passing on details of your plans to other sites.
Ghostery, a browser extension that allows you to block data harvesting, reveals the true extent of online surveillance. As you read the London Observer’s exposé of Cambridge Analytica, no fewer than a dozen different trackers from three separate ad companies are watching your every click and scroll — and reporting back to their owners.
But Russians have learned recently that even if they log off social media, their online activity is still being constantly monitored— through public Wi-Fi spots.
Muscovites discovered last month that the Wi-Fi provider on the city’s huge public transport system—used by 12 million people a day—was collecting data from anyone using its routers. It could then be harvested by anyone savvy enough with the technology, according to a researcher who looked into it.
And it is taken as a given that Russia’s intelligence services have access to all online activity from any network. As one source in Russia’s data mining industry said, it’s “practically impossible” to evade mass-scale commercial surveillance.