Losing Privacy – How we got here and what to do next

Privacy.  Something that I like to think I have a good amount of, in reality probably have a lot less of, and always want to have more of.  Today I want to explore the idea of “losing” privacy and why our fear of this phenomenon may be higher in the current climate than it was before.

Before going any further, let’s first define what privacy is.  For the purposes of this blog post, we’ll define “privacy” as the level of difficulty a stranger would have in finding out personal details about you.  The more privacy you have, the harder it is for someone to find out information about you, and the less privacy you have, the easier it is for someone to find out information about you.  We’ll define strangers as fellow human beings with whom you do not have a personal relationship with and who do not work in government surveillance.

Now, what does it mean to “lose” privacy, and when did we start “losing” it?  According to our definitions above, we can say losing privacy is essentially making it less difficult for strangers to find out details about you.  As for when we actually started to lose it, the answer is a little less clear.  Technically speaking, we can say that we started losing privacy as soon as we started posting information about ourselves on publicly available spaces.  In practice this means using social media such as Xanga, MySpace, Facebook, and, more recently, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.  However, with even these services alone, it can be argued that society’s collective privacy was still fairly safe, as, while it may be easy for an individual to stalk a few people, it would be quite the effort for an individual to find information about thousands or millions of people.  In other words, the information was all there, but the method for viewing a lot of it at once wasn’t something a layman could do.

This is, of course, before the widespread use of web scraping and web crawling.  Web scraping and web crawling, at their core, are methods by which one can scan and extract data from the internet en masse.  While these tools have been in existence almost as long as the internet has, their threat to privacy is their recent adoption and integration in facets of everyday life.  Consider Spokeo, a company that aggregates individuals’ information across their social media accounts, public data, and deep web to create a “profile” of that person.  This profile would include information such as potential family members, place of residence, past places of residence, salary range, and estimated credit score.  Spokeo then sells this information to entities such as employers, creditors, and landlords, who then use this data to make hiring, loan, and rent decisions.  In a similar vein, consider Fama, a company that classifies one’s social media activities and posts as “positive”, “negative”, or “neutral”, and then sells the count of each type of action to potential employers.

From the two examples above, we see that there are now commercially available ways for strangers to not only obtain information about you, but also act on it.  This, I argue, is the ultimate chipping away of privacy, and why our societal fear is greater and more warranted than it was before.  The information is available as it has been for over a decade now – however, there are now very accessible tools with which those with minimal technical experience can not only aggregate information about an individual, but also aggregate that aggregated information for the millions of individuals who have some form of online presence.

So, is this how democracy dies, in a late stage capitalistic state where oligarchical companies know everything about us?  I would like to think not.  Thankfully, there are ways that we can combat this very thing, all from the comfort of our own homes.  Spokeo, and companies like it have an opt-out option where individuals can delete information about themselves that Spokeo and other companies have been storing.  An incomplete list of how to do this can be found here.  Additionally, while our information may be available to the public, our “content” is under copyright.  Anything posted on Twitter or Instagram, according to the respective services’ Terms of Use, is the legal property of the user.  Further, there is legislation in the pipeline that would protect users’ online privacy.  For the state of California, one need only look here to see the upcoming legislation.  Finally, the simplest option is to, of course, discontinue use of social media platforms.  For many, this is understandably a challenge.  While we may not be able to completely stop using social media, there are ways to make more of our information on social media private, thus preventing companies like Spokeo and Fama from harvesting it.  Ways to do this on Facebook can be found here.

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