In the Age of Data, Your Online Privacy is Ground Zero

The privacy debate is mostly centered around government snooping especially after the stunning revelations about the sheer volume of raw data that governments and their agencies collect under the guise of protecting national security interests. The Domestic Surveillance Directorate of the NSA says, if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear about its surveillance. According to its website, “domestic Surveillance plays a vital role in our national security by using advanced data mining systems to “connect the dots” to identify suspicious patterns.”

Above – source for photo is this link

However, beyond the Big Brother activity of governments, corporations all over the world are leveraging the advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning to collect, sift through, and monetize consumer data in more ways than you can imagine.

Data brokerage is a multibillion-dollar business globally and Julie Brill, Federal Trade Commissioner in an interview on 60 Minutes observed that “no one even knows how many companies there are trafficking in our data. But it’s certainly in the thousands, and would include research firms, all sorts of Internet companies, advertisers, retailers and trade associations. The largest data broker is Acxiom, a marketing giant that brags it has, on average, 1,500 pieces of information on more than 200 million Americans.”

Your privacy VS corporate interests and national security

The privacy debate is at least 130 years old in the United States – the first argument was espoused by future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis who opined that the individual has “the right to be let alone.” At the fundamental level, privacy is a civil right enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to provide individuals with privacy against the state and its agencies. Citizens can also expect the privacy of their unexpressed beliefs, thoughts, emotions, and political dissent from undue government surveillance.

In the last decade, the privacy debate became louder after a series of incidents triggered clashes between the individual’s right to privacy and the government’s duty to protect the public. The dissonance over privacy and public security came to a head with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing about the extent of the U.S. government’s surveillance. Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernadino terrorists further fired up more debates about when private rights should be retired for the public good.

Most people probably won’t have reasons to be worried that they might be specifically targeted by the government or her agents. Many people might even be less bothered about the mass surveillance inasmuch as it guarantees increased security for the general public. However, people tend to draw the line when businesses start to breach the individual’s right to privacy to increase their bottom lines.

Proactively ensuring online privacy and anonymity

Getting rid of cookies – temporary, persistent, third-party or otherwise often requires some technical expertise and most people often accept cookies in the much the same way that they agree to the terms of software licenses without reading through. Even if you have the technical expertise and time to get rid of cookies, it could be highly cumbersome, time-consuming, and inefficient trying to prevent an ISP from logging your sessions and selling the data.

A VPN (virtual private network) is a better solution for ensuring online privacy and anonymity by masking the user’s IP address, keeping their online actions private, and encrypting connections to enhance the security of the data sent or received. You can read more about how VPN encryption works here.

Beyond ensuring the privacy of your online activities, a VPN is also effective for protecting hackers from spying or stealing your sensitive personal information such as social security numbers, passwords, and bank details. In 2018 alone, the Federal Trade Commission processed 1.4 million cases of fraud resulting in a combined estimated economic loss of $1.48 billion. Identity theft often powers credit card fraud and 85% of the 167,000 people who reported identity theft cases in 2018 said that criminals opened credit card accounts with their information.

The Center for Victim Research opines that 7% to 10% of the U.S. population fall victim to identity fraud every year and 21% of the victims have fallen prey to multiple incidents. Thankfully, the Online Trust Alliance submits that as much as 93% of data breaches can be avoided through the implementation of fundamental data security processes.

The thin line between harmless personalization and malicious targeting
Barring a targeted surveillance operation by a government, its agents, or acts of corporate espionage; the main ways that a person’s privacy can be breached on the internet are either through your internet connection, the websites that you visit, or the activity logs kept by your Internet service provider.

For much of the last decade, advertisers have mostly leveraged behaviourally targeted advertising cookies planted on the websites that people visit. While the word cookies might sound innocuous, it refers to a key component of the tracking tools used by online advertisers. First-party cookies that publishers or website owners drop on their sites are often necessary for defining the user experience and remembering specifics such as language, location, and time.

Third-party cookies are the main culprit in ad targeting and behavioral advertising. By adding cookies to a page, the advertisers can track the actions of the user or their device across different websites on the internet. Hence, a simple search on how to buy champagne flutes might cause you to see ads about champagne, fine dining, liquor, or travel for much of the following weeks.

In 2017, the House of Representatives voted to reverse regulations that stopped internet service providers from selling the web browsing data of their customers. The reversal of the regulation was a setback for privacy because it allowed big telecommunication firms to profit off people’s data.

Conclusion

The privacy debate isn’t ending any time soon and there’ll always be arguments and counterarguments relating to individual privacy, civil liberties, and public security. Taking proactive countermeasures such as using a VPN might ensure your privacy online. However, there are still other privacy concerns relating to big data layered on phone records, CCTVs, facial recognition, and biometrics scanning when you interact with businesses or governments.

Thankfully, developments such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which came into effect in May 2018 mandate governments and businesses to only collect information that they need. GDPR also ensures that such information is kept securely and that it is not kept for much longer than is functionally necessary.

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