Saturday, May 4, 2013

Have We Seen the Death of Online Privacy?

There are moral and ethical issues concerning online privacy. Make no mistake about it: in this new digital era, we live in a state of constant surveillance.  There are hundreds of advertising and tracking companies that follow everything we do online. The articles we read, the videos we watch, the sites we visit, and the social comments we make are all being tracked and analyzed. For this reason, nearly every person with a computer should be thinking about how to protect his or her sensitive information.

Times Have Changed 

Online Privacy
Online Privacy
In the early days of the Internet, users could hide under fake names or nicknames. Most people didn’t enter their actual location because there were “creepy people” out there in cyberspace that you were “supposed to hide from.” Along came Facebook, which wasn’t interested in your nickname. Instead, it wanted your real name and birthdate. Twitter soon followed suit. Google has shared pretty much everything you’ve ever told one of its services with the rest of the Google product family. If you add cookies, IP addresses, tracking share buttons, and location-based sharing to the mix, it’s a wonder “creepy people” haven’t found you yet.

With the current stage of the digital realm, you can’t tweet about your life, check in, write a controversial blog, or run a web business and still expect privacy. You can only hope to contain it. However, someone is eventually going to Google you, and Google is eventually going to help tie all the information together. You have to prepare for and make peace with your digital life being “out there” and understand that you might have to deal with the possible consequences of someone finding it.

Privacy in the digital age means a lot of things to a lot of people. Some people fret about the privacy controls on social networks, some worry about the companies that track their online behavior, and others are concerned about government surveillance. But, the private and/or public discussion to date has focused almost exclusively on privacy and worry. New technologies that cause disruption have often led to collective concern about privacy.

Privacy and the Emergence of “Big Data” 

Big Data is Watching You
Always Watching You
One of these new privacy-disruptive technologies is Big Data. With companies competing to acquire and analyze data at an astonishing pace, this new world of data collection is able to help build insights into Internet-user behavior. This deep analysis mines even the most personal information associated with user actions. Big Data can assemble this information into an intimate picture of the people it relies on for raw data.

Google searches, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, Pinterest posts, and Twitter messages, for example, make it possible to measure behavior in fine detail - sometimes even as it happens. Big Data is how Target's Guest Relations Analytics accidentally revealed a teenaged girl was pregnant to her father. The store's data collectors used information about her purchasing habits to predict her pregnancy - even though she did not explicitly reveal the information to Target or to her parents. With this newly mined data, Target sent her a pamphlet about upcoming parenthood. This pointed information revealed the undisclosed pregnancy to her shocked and uninformed parents.

Big Data
Big Data Infographic
Because of cases like this, it would be naive to think targeted ads aren't already happening and not to expect continued increases in targeted advertising. These sites will turn to their valuable data to boost revenue. The price of storing and analyzing data is also dropping exponentially and keeping that data hidden is a hopeless task. With advertisers demanding more targeted ads, the mining of personal data to pinpoint consumer desires is quickly becoming more rampant.

This online data can be combined with offline data like our voting record, employment history, and marriage licenses to build an extremely detailed profile. Companies like Facebook already scan the contents of photos and private messages for Homeland Security “risk words” like “infection,” “body scanner,” or “hacker” and turn them over to law enforcement. Even if you delete your embarrassing Facebook posts, companies like Social Intelligence sell the past 7 years of your posts. The wireless companies you pay for mobile service turn over 1.3 million customer records to law enforcement each year - which include texts and your phone’s GPS location.

Steps to Protect Online Privacy 

Online Data Privacy
Online Data Privacy
Although it may seem daunting, there are steps that can be taken to minimize the depletion of your online privacy. A few of these steps include enabling private browsing, creating a “clean” email as well as a separate “spam” email address, examining the privacy policy of sites you agree to use, and managing what personal information you’re posting online. For most users, these are extra steps are viewed as unnecessary. However, if you’re interested in maintaining some semblance of privacy online, these steps are necessary. Otherwise, it would be prudent to realize that most of what you do online can – in many ways – be considered to be publicly accessible information.

Embrace and Adapt to the Changes

The dirty secret of the Web is that the "free" content and services which consumers enjoy come with a hidden price - revealing consumers own private data. Online advertising constantly fights against anonymity and pseudonymity. Advertisers are continuously trying to learn everything about web users, to unmask them, and peel away layers of demographic info, interests, and behaviors. For the most part, we've adjusted to this shift in the new technology era. The sooner we realize we are better off learning to manage our privacy than fight against the lack of it, the sooner we can get back to enjoying the internet. There will always be emerging changes. As we have in the past, we will continue to adjust and adapt.

For more information on Online Privacy check out the links below:

Podcast:  The Privacy Blog Podcast – Ep.7: Blacklisted SSL Certificates, Social Media Hacking, and the “Right to be Forgotten” Online

Video:  Will we care about online privacy in 20 years?

Video:  Find and Fix Holes in Your Online Privacy - Tekzilla Daily Tip

Infographic:  Facebook, Google and the death of online privacy - 


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