You’re probably worrying too much and about the wrong things.
Privacy is a huge and controversial topic. So huge I can’t tell you what steps to take, what settings to change, what apps to avoid, or what services to choose. Not only are there seemingly infinite options, but the options keep changing.
There are also about as many opinions on the topic as there are internet users. Anything I say is just one more voice in the crowd… but that’s not going to stop me.
Let’s take a pragmatic look at your privacy and your options.
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There are two types of privacy: the privacy expected of the services we use, and the privacy we choose. Software and online services have the ability to collect massive amounts of data from their users, but they look at the behavior of crowds, not individuals. Your own choices have more impact on your personal privacy, now and in the future.
Two kinds of privacy
“Privacy” is a really big term, so I want to define two types.
- Explicit privacy is the privacy we control more directly with our choices. For example, choosing not to share a photo on social media is one form of explicit privacy. Keeping our passwords to ourselves is another. So are the settings we use to control who is allowed to see what we post.
The biggest difference between implicit and explicit privacy is the amount of control we have. We implicitly trust the software and services to do what they say. We explicitly decide what to share based on what we believe may happen. Let’s look further into the first.
Privacy, policies, and Big Brother
Privacy — or lack thereof — when using popular services or software is a big topic of discussion. For example, Window’s tracking activity generates a great deal of concern. It’s debatable whether the concern is warranted.
Any online service involves some amount of tracking. Visiting a simple website — even Ask Leo! — results in some amount of what might be considered tracking, usually in relation to advertising displayed on the site. Some consider that an invasion of privacy. The most common visible signs are advertisements that appear to follow you from site to site as you browse the web.
All online services and websites have the ability to collect vast amounts of data derived from their 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 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 we share and with whom.
I often hear from individuals who’ve shared a password with a trusted friend only to be surprised when their privacy is violated because the trust was misplaced.
We’ve all heard stories of individuals losing jobs or job opportunities because of statements, photos, or videos posted on social media. Call your boss names on Twitter, for example, and there’s 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 be the reason you don’t get the next job or loan you apply for.
When it comes to privacy, we’re often our own worst enemy.
You’re just not that interesting
I say it often: 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 websites you visit and things you click on to tailor the ads you see is pretty benign.
The companies collecting this data aren’t looking at you as an individual. They’re looking for trends from the data of millions of users to determine what’s being acted on, what’s influencing the crowd, and what they might do better.
I do it, too. For example, do I care that you, specifically, looked at my newsletter? At a personal level I do, but I’m not going to sift through information on nearly 50,000 subscribers to see who did and who didn’t. On the other hand, if 10,000 fewer people open the newsletter one week, that’s information I want to be able to act on. I can only do that by tracking the behavior of 50,000 individuals in aggregate.
The same is true for most any company. Your personal privacy isn’t being violated because nobody is looking at you specifically. One person just isn’t that interesting; thousands or millions, on the other hand, almost certainly are.
But you might be interesting someday
There are two cases in which you might become interesting.
If you run afoul of the law. This isn’t an issue for most, but if you live in an oppressive regime or are subject to investigation for your activities, it could be. Even this falls into two sub-categories: the unduly paranoid (a larger number of people than we might hope); and the legitimately concerned, for both legal and illegal reasons.
It is important to realize that if you fall into this category, law enforcement may have the right to collect information about you. This can include things we might brush off as irrelevant — like ad or service usage 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 vary dramatically, based on everything from expertise to budget to jurisdiction to prioritization of limited resources.
Future opportunities. Some years from now, perhaps someone will research your history as part of a job application or something else where your record and reputation are important. What you post today, publicly or even privately, 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.
If you’re a criminal, you probably should be concerned. The only thing preventing you from being exposed is the limited resources of the law enforcement agencies who really do care about you specifically. There are steps you can take, but I’m not the one to help you take them.
For the rest of us living more mundane lives, my advice is pretty simple.
First, stop worrying about being tracked by the companies providing the services you use. They don’t care about you as an individual. There is plenty of 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, that has little chance of impacting you as an individual.1
Second, don’t post anything you wouldn’t want to be 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 from the internet.
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 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 possible and practical realities, and make careful choices accordingly.
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Footnotes & References
1: And if you’re going to worry, then be more consistent. It’s funny to me to get rants about the alleged privacy violations of company G, sent via an email address provided by company M, whose activity is on par with G. If the behaviors of the major service providers concern you that much, I know of no solution other than walking away from the internet entirely.