14 September 2023
Sometimes it’s complicated to understand the importance of privacy in the digital world, but it can be a little easier to explain it in the physical world. Imagine someone comes into your home, goes through your stuff, reads your private notes, and leaves. That at the very least will make you uncomfortable. Something similar happens in the digital world, your feelings are expressed in the content you consume, your political preferences are reflected in the “likes” you give, your needs and economic situation is revealed in the purchases you make online, your sexual orientation is revealed in the searches you do on Google and more.
Knowledge is power; Knowledge about you is power over you. Your information will be used to anticipate your actions and manipulate the way you shop, vote, and think.
So we can define privacy as the ability to set limits on who has access to our bodies, places and objects. In short, everything that we define as non-public in our lives. Furthermore, it is also stated in article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Now, what does this mean in the digital world? Privacy in the digital world could then be defined as the ability to set limits on your personal information, who we give access to, what information we want to share and what not. And what is considered as personal information? By personal information we mean anything from your name, your address, your age, your browsing history and even your chat communications. Accordingly, we could define as personal information any data that serves to identify you as a person.
To get a good understanding of what is considered personal data we can read the following excerpt from the GDPR:
‘personal data’ means any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person (‘data subject’); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person;
Online privacy is just as important as offline privacy. Just as we do not want everyone to know everything about us, the same applies to the information we share online. Often, we are not aware of all the information we provide or we do not give it due importance. Writing down your email address, a password and providing your phone number may seem harmless. However, this changes when all the information you are leaving is linked together and combined with data from various sources and by using different techniques, such as recently patented by Apple to know what you want from your body movements. This allows the creation of a profile that can be linked to a real identity, exposing much more about our intimate lives than we think. These profiles can be used for the big tech companies to continue generating more profits or for hackers to carry out illicit activities.
Some examples of this:
You may not know that every time you get something for free in the digital world, we are not the customer but the product.
It is inevitable that you leave traces while browsing, it is inevitable that we have to share data and it is mostly an illusion that we have control over our data. Because it’s not just up to us to read terms and conditions carefully, to be cautious about cookie settings or to “turn off” our mobile’s GPS when we’re not using it. It also depends on the software and services we use having built-in privacy and minimum security levels to ensure that our information will not be leaked.
Following this line, then if we can do something, we can take the option of using solutions that respect our privacy and here I am going to leave you some options:
Use free software, created by the community in order to ensure minimal freedoms to its users and not use them as a product.
Your web browser must respect you. You can use Firefox.
Your search engine should not know who you are. You can use DuckDuckGo or Ecosia (interesting if you are concerned about climate change).
Your social networks should be federated and not centralized. Mastodon and Pixelfed, clear examples.
In conclusion, as long as personal data has an economic value for bad actors they will never stop inventing ways to get it either with or without your consent. Because of this and because of the importance of privacy over other rights such as free speech and the ability to explore areas of our mind without fear of being judged or discriminated against, it is necessary that we take action to make ourselves respected.
We all have three lives: public, private and secret.
Gabriel García Márquez