Online Privacy or What’s Left of It

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The average individual is not thinking about privacy, at least not when it comes to their digital persona(s) within cyberspace. The perceived conveniences are all too alluring for one to be bothered  about potential pitfalls…who isn’t up for instant communication or the best memes if that’s what you’re into. The euphoria stemming from the seemingly egalitarian nature of the internet further serves to delude us into disregarding the shortcomings of this utopian tool that is free…only if you can afford the barriers to entry.

When we consider our privacy online, guarding against or avoiding self-incriminating info might be what most think about when engaging and interacting on the internet. Passwords, login details and similar credentials also mean much probably because of the lock and key nature related to connecting and disconnecting from our various ‘personal’ accounts. The most popular platforms essentially provide the same suite of features to users with the main differentiations being brand names, user-interface design and copyright protected buzzwords, but i digress. In giving into the siren call of the promises of the internet, we knowingly or unknowingly yield control of our information to the benevolent providers of these services we can barely live without (think social networks and the like). Oh and just so you know, this happens when you click ‘I AGREE’ to dismiss the bothersome messages that pop up as you install software or apps on your smartphones and laptops, much like a Faustian bargain. Yes, ‘benevolent providers’ are legally expected to do this in a bid to educate the user on their legal rights and limits -did someone say freedom?- when using the concerned product. Here lies the first issue in this interaction, people virtually never read through these terms and conditions and avoiding this ordeal is made a lot easier with the ‘AGREE’ button practically staring you down. Luckily, privacy watchdogs like Terms of Service; Didn’t Read simplify the terms of service agreements for the most popular websites and applications into making it less of a nightmare to understand what one is signing up for.

Endless scrolls of terms and conditions are the least of worries plaguing those who want to use the internet as they wish. We make use of all sorts of apps for all sorts activities ranging from the benign to the crucial, what escapes us in this context is that during usage of these products, we generate something called metadata which in simple terms is information’s information e.g. metadata associated with your web browser will be your IP address, approximate location, browser history and device details etc. This TechRepublic article covers metadata as a quick catch-up on the topic. Just about every device with an internet capability gathers metadata of some sort. A 2014 study conducted by Stanford University showed that through metadata (call duration, location during a call, serial numbers of caller and recipient devices) alone, a clear profile of an individual could be gleaned from the metadata on a personal device such as a smartphone.

We were able to infer medical conditions, firarm ownership and more, using solely phone metadata – Jonathan Mayer

Now carry this over to the myriad services, networks and websites on which we spend more and more time regardless of perceived value or amount of metadata generated through the use of these ‘trusted’ apps. This leads to another arcane concept referred to as targeted advertisement where specific criteria of a person’s internet habit are accounted for in order to increase chances of selling a product to said individual. Companies have gotten so good at targeting users for adverts (using that sweet metadata) that some even get into trouble. On the other hand, there now exists legislation such as the 2018 General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018, though with limited jurisdiction, serves as defenses for the individual online by coaxing service providers into data privacy control to the individual.

The devices are shiny, nice and trendy even though they are all just rectangular slabs, the websites with bright colors and icons attract our attention, the emails are important and the memes are hilarious but this does not change the fact that Instagram and Amazon share info with many 3rd parties or that Pinterest and Facebook may use tracking pixels to follow users across multiple websites or Gmail scanning emails for ‘suggested replies’ to your conversations.

This is not ending anytime soon, the internet and all its baggage is here to stay. For the less concerned at this point, this doesn’t mean much. For the others, get used to clearing your browser cache and history, signing out of accounts not in use, paying attention to the info you put out there. This is not a catch-all solution, just a step in the direction of retaining control of YOUR information online.

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