It’s no secret: the Internet is becoming more and more a part of daily life. At the center of this trend is social media, where anyone can make an account, connect with friends, and carry out their personal life in an online form. Most of us don’t think twice before punching in our basic information or showcasing our interests on sites like Facebook and Twitter, and of course it’s great that we are able to express ourselves and build a presence online. However, the data trail that our browsing habits leaves behind present several all-too-often neglected privacy issues, and can reveal much more about our real lives than we think.
So what exactly is this so-called “data trail” that we create online? Who’s paying attention to it, and what kind of privacy risks arise as a result? And most importantly, what can we do to protect ourselves? Now that we turn to the internet for so much of our socializing, shopping, and leisure time, we’ve begun to make substantial imprints of ourselves in the online world. From the personal information you fill out in a website’s Sign Up forms to automatically-generated ‘cookie’ data that essentially tracks your browsing habits, as an internet user, you’ve inadvertently provided the web with a ‘trail’ of data that reveals a good deal about you. Such issues of informational ownership are unique to our Internet Age- never before have substantial portions of people’s lives been stored in (often freely accessible) data, so questions of whether or not you own your personal information and who can access it have yet to find any kind of legal consensus. Thus, like most of the Internet, access to people’s online information is widely unregulated and its uninhibited access is more or less being treated as fair game by governments, corporations, and individuals all across the world.
The most ubiquitous online reservoir of personal information is Facebook. Choosing safer privacy settings, such as limiting the audience of your posts to just your friends, can obviously limit vulnerability to your information being publicly accessible. However, even something as simple as ‘liking’ a page can reveal more than one might think, as a recent study conducted by Cambridge University and Microsoft Research shows. The study, which surveyed the profiles of over 58,000 Facebook users, found that their data analysis tool could predict with surprising accuracy a Facebook user’s “race, IQ, sexuality, substance use, personality or political views using only a record of the subjects and items they had “liked” on Facebook – even if users had chosen not to reveal that information.” The researches were able to predict the sexual orientation of participating male Facebook users with 88% accuracy. Here in Canada, such personal traits being revealed would at worst result in embarrassment and social discrimination, but in less tolerant countries, alternative views and identification with certain minority groups are taken far less lightly. Many are often surprised to hear that Facebook retains everything single action you have ever made on the site, even the most minor ones, stored in a personalized file that (due to years of legal wrangling) is available for you to download on your Account Settings page. The nature of this data retention (technically, what you post is Facebook’s property just as much as it is yours) is ethically questionable in itself, and also presents the risk of massive identity theft.
Aside from the apparent, but perhaps seemingly far-fetched risks of persecution, the insecurity of personal information also brings issues of blackmailing potential, employer disapproval, and the commoditization of your preferences. It isn’t just the government who’s interested in keeping tabs on your online life (although they certainly are: The United States is currently building a controversial data center capable of storing the entire Internet itself). Private companies, especially those in the sector of targeted marketing, have made an entire industry out of aggregating internet users’ personal information. Of course it’s reasonable for a company to try to hone in on a specific consumer group, but the idea that random companies are buying and selling your personal information without your consent is plainly intrusive.
So how can you protect yourself and your information? The first step is to be mindful of what you choose to share on the internet. Once you post something online, chances are, it’s on record and it’s there to stay. It’s also very important to be aware of and appropriately adjust the privacy settings of your internet browsers and preferred social networks. Additionally, there are many free, simple, and effective tools out there that can help mitigate privacy risks. The browser extension TrackMeNot, for example, stops search engines from building personal data profiles on you. Tor, a nifty piece of anonymizing software, allows you to browse safely without fear of political consequence or potential personal embarrassment. No one in their right mind would want someone sneaking into their room and copying down every word of their diary, so likewise, protecting our online identity and defending our rights to it is something that just makes sense.
By Max Honigmann