There’s no doubt that we’re in a very complicated time in terms of personal data. Most uneducated consumers don’t realize how much sensitive information is traded each time they log in to their favorite social media apps or use an in-home electronic assistant.
In turn, they’re unsuspectingly leaving hordes of details about their private lives out for anyone (or any corporation) to expose.
And that’s where web scraping comes in. Also referred to as web harvesting or web data collection, this process involves specialized software that collects information from a website and compiles it for other uses. Just like any other technological tool, the process can be used for both positive and negative purposes.
Here are a few things to consider when looking at the argument of whether web scraping should be considered illegal.
There are numerous benefits of using data scraping, and many businesses around the globe use the byproduct of this practice, whether they know it or not.
Those who feel data harvesting is not a threat, often cite the ability to compile data together from multiple websites in an easy and cost-effective fashion. From this perspective, the general thought is that anything put out on the internet is the same as having it in public view, thus making it general knowledge.
In some cases, they’re right. Web scraping powers the Wayback Machine, a website dedicated to providing previous editions of websites in a clear and easy-to-use manner.
This program makes it easy to look back at previous data, which is definitely a positive. But the technology used to attain the information is what concerns many in the industry.
Likewise, many organizations and corporations use data harvesting as a way to quickly and affordably access large databases of potential customers. For sales teams or even non-profit organizations, this can be a great way to use software or a third-party vendor to compile a list of leads and then work off that list.
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However, there is a downside to the process of web scraping and using personal data for business purposes.
From a technical perspective, harvested data isn’t always easy to interpret or gives you the information you really need. For example, the information scraped using a software program might just be gibberish without any real context. It can also be the wrong information or data that has no real significance on the business you’re trying to conduct.
But the biggest and most hotly contested factor doesn’t deal with technical limitations. Rather, it has to do with the public’s understanding of web scraping and whether it is really an invasion of personal privacy.
Many individuals feel that any outside entity’s ability to pull random data from various public websites and compile it to come up with a specific conclusion is a form of privacy invasion. But, whether they like it or not, it isn’t really all that uncommon.
Marketing companies use this process all the time to try and predict likes, dislikes, and future moves of consumers. They have been doing so for a very long time.
What this all basically comes down to is that website owners are responsible for protecting their customers and users from actions like web scraping and data mining.
By keeping certain sensitive pieces of information private, like banking transaction details or contact information, these organizations can help limit their risk of a breach and ensure positive customer satisfaction.
While that kind of sounds like a no-brainer, it really isn’t always the normal course for some major platforms. For example, Venmo got into a bit of hot water in 2019 by publicly publishing all transactions and keeping them in a database.
This meant that anyone who had a specific user’s username could see every single time they paid for a cup of coffee or sent a roommate half of the month’s rent.
When news stories like this hit the public consciousness, it can be outrageous to the general population. That’s why it isn’t just the actual protection of the data itself that is so crucial for website owners. Their entire reputation can be at stake upon the discovery of web scraping being used against one of their pages.
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Like with anything else in tech, there are certainly pros and cons to web scraping. While the process isn’t a big deal when it comes to innocent or general information, it can cause huge problems when you’re talking about very specific details about a website user’s lifestyle.
Thus, it is incredibly important for all website owners to pay extra attention when it comes to protecting certain pieces of data, as the practice is so widely used that it isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
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