Privacy is a huge topic. So huge I can’t really tell you exactly what steps to take, what settings to change, what apps to avoid, or what services to choose.
Not only are there infinite options, but the options keep changing.
On top of that, there are about as many opinions on the topic as there are internet users. That makes anything I say just one more voice in the crowd …
… not that that’s going to stop me. 🙂
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Two kinds of privacy
“Privacy” is a really big term, and I want to start by putting a little structure around it. When we talk about privacy, we can be talking about several different things that I’ll lump into two buckets.
Explicit privacy. This is the privacy we control more directly as a side effect of the choices we make. For example, choosing to share (or not share) a photo on a social media service is one form of explicit privacy, as are the settings we might use to control who is allowed to see what we might post.
The biggest difference between implicit and explicit privacy, in my mind, is the amount of control we have over it. We implicitly trust that the software and services will do as they say. We explicitly decide what to share based on what we believe may happen.
Privacy, policies, and Big Brother
The biggest topic of discussion in recent months has been the privacy – or lack thereof – assumed when using popular services or software. For example, Windows 10’s activity and tracking continues to generate a great deal of concern as the operating system becomes more widely used. Whether that concern is warranted is a topic open to debate.
Similarly, using any online service involves some amount of tracking. Visiting a simple web site – even Ask Leo! – can result in some amount of what might be considered “tracking”, typically in relation to advertising display on the site. Some people consider that tracking an invasion of privacy. The most common visible signs are advertisements that appear to follow you from site to site as you navigate the web.
In reality, all the online services and websites you visit have the ability to collect vast amounts of data derived from internet users. Similarly, any and all software you install has the ability to collect usage information.
Whether or not you believe Big Brother is watching, the bottom line is that the technology is there should he want to.
The (poor) choices we make
At the other end of the privacy spectrum are the often poor choices we make about what information we share and with whom.
I regularly hear from individuals who actually share a password with a trusted friend or significant other, only to be surprised when their privacy is violated in some way because that trust was unwarranted.
We’ve all heard stories of individuals losing jobs or job opportunities for statements made, or photos or videos posted publicly on social media. Call your boss names on Twitter, for example, and you have no one to blame but yourself when you’re shown the door the next morning. Have you posted “funny” pictures of yourself after imbibing a tad too much alcohol? That could easily be the reason you’re not hired for the next job you apply for, or don’t get the loan you applied for.
It’s sadly common that when it comes to privacy, we’re often our own worst enemy.
You’re just not that interesting
I’ve said it over and over: you and I just aren’t that interesting as individuals. That your operating system might track what you do is pretty meaningless in terms of personal privacy. That advertisers might use what you visit and things you click on to tailor what you see is similarly pretty benign.
The companies that collect this data aren’t looking at you as an individual. They’re looking for trends: they’re looking at accumulated data on thousands (if not millions) of users to determine what’s being acted on, what’s influencing people, and what they might do better.
Even I do it. For example, do I care that you, specifically, looked at my newsletter? At some personal level I do, but I’m not going to sift through information on nearly 60,000 subscribers to see who did and who didn’t. On the other hand, if the aggregate number of people who open my newsletter changes in some dramatic way, that’s a sign I want to see; that’s information I want to be able to act on. I can only do that by tracking the behavior of 60,000 individuals.
The same is true for most any company. Your privacy isn’t being violated, because nobody is looking at you, specifically. You’re just not that interesting.
But you might be interesting to someone, someday
There are two cases in which you might become “interesting”.
If you run afoul of the law. This is a non-issue for most people. But what if you live in an oppressive regime, or are subject to investigation for your activities by whatever law enforcement agencies apply to your situation? Even this falls into two sub-categories: the unduly paranoid (sadly, a larger number than one might hope), and the legitimately concerned, for both legal and illegal reasons.
It is important to realize that if you fall into this category (again, depending on where you live), law enforcement may have the right to collect information about you. This can include information we normally brush off as irrelevant – like ad or service usage information collected by your ISP, or the services and software you use. I have to say law enforcement may have the right, because laws differ dramatically depending on where you live. Of more practical import, perhaps, law enforcement capabilities also often vary dramatically based on everything from expertise to budget to prioritization of where they choose to expend their limited resources.
Future opportunities. The other case is the one I alluded to earlier: some years from now, perhaps someone will research your history as part of a job application, or something else where your record and your reputation are important. What you post publicly (and in some cases even privately) today may influence their opinion tomorrow.
It’s all so scary. What to do?
It’d be easy to read that last section, throw up your hands, and crawl into a hole thinking privacy is a thing of the past, at least when it comes to the internet.
Certainly if you’re a criminal, you should be concerned. The only thing really preventing you from being exposed is the limited resources of the various and sundry law enforcement agencies who really do care about you, specifically. There are steps you should take, but I’m not the one to help you take them.
For the rest of us living more mundane lives, my advice is actually pretty simple.
First: stop worrying about being tracked by the companies that provide the services you use. As I said, they don’t care about you as an individual. Certainly there is much room for policy debate about what kinds of information they should and should not collect, and how they should or should not use it, but in my opinion, this has extremely little chance of impacting you as an individual. (And if you’re going to worry, then be more consistent. It’s always funny to me to get rants about the alleged privacy violations of company “A”, sent via an email address provided by company “B”, whose activity is on par with “A”. Honestly, if the behaviors of the major service providers really concern you that much, I know of no solution other than to walk away from the internet entirely.)
Second: don’t post anything you wouldn’t want made public. Learn the privacy policies and settings of your social media and other applications,and change them and/or change your behavior accordingly. Public once is public forever; there’s no calling it back. Think twice about what you post privately as well, since you’re assuming your private audience won’t someday make it public without your approval. This includes not only social media, but also things you share in any form, be it email, text messaging, or other media. We’ve all seen situations where communications once thought private were made public to great embarrassment or worse.
Privacy remains your responsibility
I remain a strong believer in our wonderfully interconnected world and all the opportunities it presents.
Naturally, it brings risk as well as reward.
Ultimately, it’s our responsibility to be aware of those risks, educate ourselves about the possibilities as well as the practical realities, and make careful choices accordingly.