A Simple (July 2019) Online Privacy Tech Stack
By Eduard Gelman | July 12, 2019
As consumers become increasingly aware that their behavior is actively tracked by advertising firms and governments, and that this information is occasionally lost in high-profile, high-stakes leaks, many are beginning to modify their habits. Privacy and security concerns are likely at the forefront of the development and adoption of a slew of tools that individuals can use to make their online and increasingly visible “offline” behavior more private, or at least, more secure. Since the toolsets and adoption are in flux, this blog will attempt to survey the landscape as it exists in July 2019, reviewing the harms that consumers are trying to avoid, and will take some liberties in picking “flagship” products to represent a technique and in omitting less-adopted technologies for the sake of concision.
The main privacy violations that these tools help consumers to minimize fit neatly into Solove’s Privacy Taxonomy, with threats coming in “surveillance”, “identification”, and “secondary use” harms. Each product discussed in this blog post address one or more of these potential harms.
Surveillance harms may come from private or public entities who are able to read content exchanged between individuals. Just as the NSA is being excoriated for it’s wide-reaching surveillance procedures, recently Facebook began to block private and public messages depending on content. It’s relatively clear that these products are well-intended, but may carry alarming, negative consequences. Further harms may come when activity across disparate platforms and connection points can be identified as belonging to the same individual, leading directly to potential exploitation of individuals based on their history. Famously, an unaware father was recently alerted to his daughter’s pregnancy by a wayward advertisement. When sensitive information leaks and is used for identity theft, this quickly escalates into a security problem with serious financial and legal ramifications.
Online, there are countermeasures that individuals can take to obfuscate or subvert tracking:
It is important to note that much of this data collection is actively used to improve and personalize products and services. Netflix might not be able to recommend a spectacular show that is perfectly suited to your tastes if it isn’t able to merge data from your behavior and ratings with those of other Netflix users. In fact, Netflix asked everyone to participate in this project, and paid handsomely for the result. Amazon might not be otherwise able to notice that you’ve looked at reviews of healthy toothpastes, and serve you an ad with a better price and much better convenience than your local supermarket. Nonetheless, some feel that ad agencies and governments building up profiles of individuals’ likes, dislikes, behaviors, vices, and other “personal” matters is a violation of privacy.
What do you think? Did this survey miss any topics or important products? Let us know in the comments.