Corporations – including Internet and social networking companies – thrive on data. For some companies, it’s a matter of trying to gauge consumers’ interests and likely buying habits based on their searches, web visits and purchases. Knowing what a consumer cares about gives them the opportunity to target ads and offers.. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your perspective. On the plus side, it means that the ads you see (and you are going to see ads in exchange for free content and service) might actually be more interesting than random messages. On the downside, it can feel invasive and creepy to know that you are being followed around the web. We like to think that we have a certain amount of privacy when we use our computers or mobile devices but we are increasingly reminded that someone – or at least some machine – is keeping track of what we do.
Governments also need data to do their work, especially when it comes to law enforcement and national security. There is no question that intelligence gathering is vital to protecting us against attack and solving crimes, but lately it seems as if the balance between protection and invasion of privacy has been off kilter. And in the information age, there is now an uneasy and sometimes involuntary connection when it comes to government and business because much of the information government gathers about us comes from what we willingly turn over to commercial enterprises like mobile phone companies, search engines, social networking sites and even places we shop on and offline. That’s because no matter how careful a company might be with its privacy and security policies, it must comply with legal requests from government to turn over customer data. Information requests approved by the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance) Courts are an example of a government information requests that companies such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple are required to respond to, even though it usually means turning over customer information without being able to disclose the nature of the requests to the customers involved or to the public. Executives from these and other companies have called on the Obama administration to reform the process.
Individuals can also be the source of our own privacy leaks because of what we post and who can see it. It sometimes surprises me how often I see personal information widely shared on social networking sites. I’ve seen people post obviously personal messages on people’s Facebook wall, apparently oblivious that it can be seen by anyone, I’ve seen people post pretty intimate photos that they might not really want to share with the public . And because of a lack of care with forwarding and copying I’ve seen a lot of personal information arrive via email that probably wasn’t meant for my eyes.
When it comes to corporations, our best defense is transparency – knowing what they collect and when they collect it – and access to tools that allow us to control who has access to our web history and what we do online. That includes knowing how to use private browsing tools, knowing how to delete cookies, knowing how to turn off tracking when possible, knowing how to control information collected by mobile apps, and knowing when it’s best to log-out of services so that they can be used anonymously.
And it’s not just Internet companies. Every time we use our credit cards or loyalty cards, information is being collected about our buying habits. Government can also play a role in helping protect consumer privacy by enforcing laws that require companies to be transparent and adhere to their own privacy policies. Some laws, however, can actually backfire on consumers by creating unintended consequences such as sometimes requiring companies to collect even more data (such as requiring users to disclose their age along with their identity).
When it comes to governments, we need to be aware of what they are doing and active in demanding that they strive to protect our privacy and civil liberties while doing their job to protect our security and safety. There is, of course, a need for some secrecy when it comes to security, but it’s possible to balance that with the privacy rights of all citizens including the rights of those suspected of a crime.
Individuals can do our part by educating ourselves on how to use the privacy tools an settings of the services you use, how to determine what services might not be safe to use and remembering the simple fact that anything that’s digital can be copied, forwarded, hacked or leaked.