Privacy & Surveillance Overview
By Jessica Laemle
In our current society, many users are unaware of the extent to which everything they do digitally is being tracked, and that they are constantly under surveillance by other corporations and individuals. The individuals and corporations who track users sell the information they gather or will use it to their competitive advantage. Our digital experience and footprint are no longer secure, and we need to constantly be aware and skeptical. Having a better understanding of how privacy is being invaded by surveillance and tracking will allow us as users to be more aware of what they do online, including what they say, post, research or where they connect devices. Our contemporary society is no longer a place where individuals can feel safe doing anything or being anywhere, including in their own home. The digital user experience is no longer separated from our offline world, but instead our digital and non-digital lives are meshed together.
Concept of Privacy
When we look at the concept of privacy, it is defined by Business Dictionary as “the right to be free from surveillance and to determine whether, when, how, and to whom one’s personal or organizational information is to be revealed.” A term often used in conjunction with privacy is publicity, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the giving out of information about a product, person, or company for advertising or promotional purposes.” The reason that I started my research with an understanding of these two terms is because these definitions are the premises that individuals assume are being implemented and followed when they are online. While this may be true in our pre-digital culture, now, these definitions don’t apply. The “privacy” in our digital culture is really very different than what it has been defined as. This raises a question I encourage you to think about: is there such thing as “privacy” online?
History of Internet Privacy
During my research, I also found it helpful to have a knowledge of the history of internet privacy, as it is beneficial to see how it has changed overtime. The internet began in 1960, when it was known as the ARPANET, and was used for military purposes. The form of the internet that we know today came out in 1990. Then, in 1994, we see the first online exchange of money when a user buys a CD online. However, when originally created, the internet wasn’t thought of as being a platform for purchasing goods, which causes it to be less secure when protecting monetary information (a potential for hackers). Also, in 1994, we see the birth of the cookie. I will explain the cookie in more detail further down on this page, but the cookie essentially is what allows for one to store information online. As the years continue to progress, we see more computer bugs, increasing amounts of surveillance by the government (especially with the PATRIOT Act) and increasingly clever tactics from companies and hackers in terms of how to gain access to user data.
Recent Privacy Issues
This history of internet privacy then leads us to today. I felt that when doing my research, I needed to have knowledge on some of the recent privacy issues, as they are increasing in frequency and consequences. Most of you have probably heard about Cambridge Analytica, which happened in the spring of 2018. For those not as aware, this was when an outside company took data from Facebook and used it without user agreement. Almost 100 million people were affected in this scandal. Some of the lesser known privacy issues that have happened in the last five years or so are the Snapchat data breach, which gave away personal information of over 5 million of its users (including usernames and phone numbers), and the Target retail company data breach that impacted over 70 million customers. This data breach gave out information regarding credit and debit cards and accounts, personal names and addresses and also private phone numbers.
Terms and Conditions
Next in my research, I looked at terms and conditions, which are often overlooked by users. Basically no one reads terms and conditions, as they are purposefully made unattractive through the use of capital letters, small and compressed text and few important parts in bold. Instead of reading these, individuals usually will scroll until they are able to press accept. Another reason that we as a society don’t read these agreements is because they are very long (not by accident FYI). No one has the time to read every work and understand this digital jargon from an outsider perspective. For a typical user, thoroughly reading all the privacy policies they agree to would take almost a month. Individuals are pretty agreeing that these companies have access to all their personal information and everything they do.
One final aspect of these agreements worth mentioning is that for companies, if you won’t agree to their terms, it’s not a big deal because millions of others will. However, for the user who doesn’t agree, not joining runs the risk of them missing out on news, friend updates, etc. because they will be one of the only ones not on this platform. This power dynamic is part of what our society needs to pay more attention to.
How Do Companies Track You?
Next in my research, I found information on how companies track. There are many ways, so I will mention just a few. The first, and one of the most often used, is cookies. Cookies are little files that are put onto your computer. They are made when you visit a site for the first time. From then on, every time you visit that site, your device number will be recognized, and your past searches are then known used to personalize your experience. In addition to this personalization, cookies are what make it possible to buy goods online (because they help remember what you put in your cart). Cookies are also what allows users to store passwords, usernames and banking information online. Clearly, cookies are not bad by nature, as they allow for easier use of the digital world and lead to more customized time online. The issue with cookies is that they have been used in negative ways and taken advantage of by the government and hackers to gather personal user information. Other ways of tracking include WiFi, store rewards cards and heatmapping (which tracks your mouse or finger movement). Sometimes, companies are even able to track a user by gathering data on their eye movement while looking at a page.
What I found most surprising was that innocent actions can lead to our information being released. The most important take away that I gained from an increased knowledge about tracking techniques was that whatever we do, we leave behind a trail or “footprint” of who we are, which companies can then find and collect our information.
What is Our Information Used For and Why?
There are many ways our information is used after it is gathered through the tracking techniques I mentioned above (or perhaps ones not mentioned). One way our information is used, as I briefly touched upon, is to give us a personalized experience. It is known that users like convenience, ease of use, and being shown products they may be interested in, which are all aspects of a personalized experience. Next, our information is sold to advertisers or third-parties who will then look at our information and use it to benefit themselves. In terms of advertisers, our information is used for targeted ads. Knowing what we like and are interested in allows them to cater to our wants and interests by showing us what we want to see, therefore making us more likely to press on an ad. Finally, our data is often studied to gain knowledge on users and possibly predict a future user’s actions.
So why? Why is our information used? It is usually not to make the user experience easier and more pleasant. Companies usually don’t care how the user feels, unless it impacts their profit. And if you haven’t guessed it, the main reason our information is used is because of the money to be earned. User data is worth tons of money and selling this data to others provides companies with much of their profit. However, this means that the companies with more users will often become more powerful because they have more data, leaving other companies struggling.
What Information is Taken From Us?
There is an extremely long list of information that can be (and is) taken from us as users and customers. Some of this information is name, phone number, address, our current location, monetary information (credit card, debit card and bank account), social security number, name, our search history, social media (posts, likes and comments), text messages, photos and videos, information on gender, and information on our political views. There are many more pieces of information that are gathered about us, but I found these the most concerning throughout my research. Can you think of any others?
Echo-chambers are not as well-known of a concept, but I found them to have an interesting connection to surveillance and privacy. For those not aware, echo-chambers are basically when certain ideas or beliefs are reinforced and those that don’t interest someone won’t be displayed in their searches or pages as much. Basically, it is a select digital world where the user only sees what others think they want to. Hopefully you are able to draw the same connection that I was. These echo-chambers are possible because of the violation of privacy regarding our information. The only way that other companies know what to put on our pages and google searches is because they have somehow taken our information and tracked our history.
This is dangerous not only because we get a one-sided perspective on different topics, but also because we will never truly get ideas from a perspective different than ours that might broaden our knowledge base or give us information on news that may be important. It is very possible that a user is interested by a news story or piece of information that their search history and information might not show. As a result, that user’s chance of expanding their knowledge is greatly decreased and they may not even know it.
The Rise of Hackers
As I touched upon very briefly earlier, as time has progressed and the internet has become more advanced, we have seen more types of hacking and more stories about hackers gaining access to information. Hackers, in my opinion, are this mysterious figure that finds ways to take your important information. Interested, I looked more into how hackers get information. I found that two of their techniques are: phishing (which creates a fake website that looks very similar to one you may frequently visit) and emails (you may get an email that looks legitimate or looks like it is from someone you know, but when you open the email or press on the link provided, you get a virus or the hacker can access your information). Once these hackers get your information, they are able to do many things, such as taking your identity, stealing or changing your information (such as usernames, passwords, credit and banking, social security, etc.), installing dangerous viruses, spending your money, gaining camera access and selling your information for profit.
A digital consumer is someone who relies heavily on the digital aspects of society for products and information. As time has progressed, we have seen a proliferation in the number of digital consumers, as everything is more easily accessible and convenient when done digitally. However, digital consumerism has created a complicated relationship between privacy and the consumer. Because of the desire for simple aspects of day to day life to be easier, we have turned to the digital, which leaves more of our potential information available to be taken. The more we use digital aspects of the world, the more violations of privacy we are exposed to. Therefore, choosing to engage in this digital culture, we are electing to take part in a trade-off between convenience and personal information. Basically, the one main take away about digital consumerism (including the increase in online consumption) is that this is one of, if not the main reason, that concerns about privacy are emerging.
New Technologies and Security
I concluded my research with briefly looking at the new revolutionary and innovative technologies that have surfaced recently and how they relate to privacy. I realized that while these new technologies may be great for the user and sound so appealing, they all come increased privacy concerns whether or not we may expect them to. Some of the technologies that have been reported to release personal information are: children’s toys (especially stuffed animals), digital pills that track medicine intake, handy speakers and devices like the Amazon Alexa and Amazon Echo, and fitness trackers (such as Fitbit).
So What Now?
As we move forward in time, it is unlikely for the changes going on in the digital world to slow down. As a society, and as individuals, we need to take a step back and look at how our lives are being impacted and the potential harms if we don’t make an effort to increase the true amount of privacy we are being given. Now is as good a time as any to start taking a step back. I encourage you to look up ways that you can better secure information before it is too late. But then again, I wonder… is it already too late?