Privacy Is Dead

Here is a reminder for all you internet users out there: your data is never private.

The recent data leak involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica is a reminder of such a fact, yet far too many people seem surprised that their data could possibly have been misused for nefarious reasons. And who can blame them? The average American clicks through over 250 hours’ worth of terms and conditions without batting an eye, and we are more than willing to share every single minute detail about our lives to strangers on the internet. Have you ever thought about how much data you have been transmitting just within the past 24 hours? The Facebook data leak should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who is unaware of what data they are sharing and how companies are using that data to their advantage.

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I want to discuss the following three main points—some of which you may not agree with completely, but I feel it is worth discussing them nonetheless. They are:

  • Every website collects data about you.
  • Your data is never private.
  • Privacy is dead.

Let us start with the first point. Every single website you visit collects data about you. Yes, it is not just Facebook. I am talking about Twitter, Google, Amazon, Spotify, and the millions of other websites that people use on a daily basis. Every action you take, every page you visit, every post you like—all of that is being recorded and stored somewhere. And it is not just websites that do this; your own web browser, and even your internet service provider, knows more about your internet-surfing habits than even you do. In fact, every piece of technology you own, from laptops to game consoles to home security cameras, is constantly recording and storing information about you, and we are quick to accept it as just the way things are without fully understanding the consequences.

Take, for example, your smartphone. This seemingly innocuous device is constantly gathering data about you every second. Do you use a navigation application to get to places? Your location is being transmitted to a server continuously where they process the navigation steps for you. Want to send that picture of your cute puppy to all your friends? That image is being uploaded and stored somewhere and sent to the dozens of devices that your friends own. Want to listen to some tunes using your favorite music streaming app? Yup, you guessed it. Every song you listen to, every playlist you create, and every album you share is being tracked, stored, and used by whoever has access to that data for their own benefit. And these are just three examples; imagine how much data you are transmitting when you factor in all the different apps you use every day.

So why do we let these companies get away with such egregious breaches of privacy? One answer may be that we simply do not care enough. So what if Google keeps track of everything I search, or Amazon keeps track of everything I buy? We have bigger problems to worry about than whether or not ESPN can predict which sports teams I like based on my history. In fact, we may even prefer some of the conveniences that sharing our personal data affords. We like it when Spotify recommends new songs that are similar to songs I already like, or when Reddit shows posts most relevant to us on the front page. In some cases, the transmission and storage of our data are required to make some of these applications work, like streaming movies on Netflix. Yes, most people do seem to care deeply about their privacy, but we are also quick to give it up for the sake of convenience.

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Most of the time, your data is not being used for nefarious reasons. Yes, the Cambridge Analytica incident is unfortunate, but we should not forget how far we have come as a technologically-advanced society thanks to big data. We have learned so much about social psychology and connected communities through the detailed analysis of social networks. We are able to create global movements, connect people in ways we never thought possible, and spread knowledge instantly thanks to the global interconnectedness of the internet. And while I use convenience as a seemingly lousy excuse for giving up our privacy, the power of being able to do things with higher efficiency and greater speed should not be underestimated.

Still, it is important for us to remember my second point. Your data, no matter how secure you think it might be, is never private. What do I mean by that? Of course, there is always the issue of hackers, like in the 2011 PlayStation Network outage where personally identifiable information belonging to over 77 million accounts were exposed due to “external intrusion”. But more often than not, our data is being shared through our own folly. Cambridge Analytica gained access to personal data from over 50 million Facebook users who were curious enough to take a personality test created by one of its affiliates. I have sat through many a research talk at Stanford where they essentially brag about how easy it was to gather data from Facebook users for their projects. Never mind the fact that there are thieves out there trying to get a hand on our information; we are practically giving it away to them for free.

People do seem to care deeply about their privacy, but we are also quick to give it up for the sake of convenience.

There are essentially two different schools of thought regarding the privacy situation we are in now. The first is that privacy is not dead, that by reeducating people on the importance of keeping data private and implementing a set of privacy standards and rules that all companies must follow, we can take back our data and make it private again. And, in a sense, we have made some headway in increasing privacy protections in the applications we use, from end-to-end encrypted messaging services like iMessage or WhatsApp, to the great work by the folks over at Mozilla who are freely distributing software packages to keep your data safe and secure.

However, as you might be able to tell, privacy and security come at a cost. By keeping all data encrypted and private, we would be eliminating social media as we know it. We would be closing the door on collaboration and open source. Things like cloud computing, self-driving cars, machine learning, natural language processing—the technologies of the future would no longer be viable. By going completely private, we are shutting out a world of social connectedness and innovation only possible through big data, and that data can only come from the things we share and the messages we send.

Privacy is dead.

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Okay, maybe I am being a little overdramatic here, but my point stands. Our nonchalant attitude towards privacy has shaped society as it is today, and our world would stop turning if we all decided to keep everything we did to ourselves. Essentially, keeping your data 100% private is impossible… but that does not mean you should go out and hand your social security number to everyone you meet. In fact, with some due diligence, you can keep most of your data private without sacrificing your tech-savvy lifestyle while at the same time drastically reducing the chances of your data being compromised. Here are a few tips:

  • Do not take Facebook quizzes. This is how Cambridge Analytica got access to people’s data. Be wary of any applications or interfaces that require you to log in using Facebook.
  • Deny permissions by default. When an app asks you to give it access to your location, the first thing you should ask is “why”. Sure, Google Maps might need it, but Shazam? You can always turn it back on later.
  • Never store sensitive information. Obviously, never share your SSN, but maybe you should think twice before saving your credit card number too. Saving passwords is also risky; you know you can access all your saved passwords on any web browser, right?
  • Use private browsing. I am not saying you should do this all the time, but do use it for when you are searching for something specific. Besides, do you want Amazon to suggest hundreds of washing machines just because you Googled them for a few minutes?
  • Post sparingly. Just resist the urge to post about everything going on in your life. The less you post, the better.

The list goes on and on. The wonderful folks at MentalFloss have compiled their own list for you to look at as well, and there are hundreds of websites, plug-ins, and additional services to help keep your data secure. Long story short, there is no better time than the present to browse smarter and ensure that your information remains secure. Sure, these techniques are not foolproof—privacy is dead after all—but taking these simple steps might be your best bet to not have your data compromised when the next Cambridge Analytica comes around.

Browse safe, kids.

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