Opinion: How Online Privacy Becomes A Commodity (And A Few Tips To Protect Your Identity)
What mid-century movie classic are you?— a quiz beckons on your screen. You’re probably curious, am I Casablanca or Gone With the Wind? A Terms & Conditions prompt appears and all you need to do is click “I Agree” and the answer to your scintillating inquiry awaits. This is one of many ways information is culled from our devices. Clicking agree feels like second nature especially when you’re always on your phone. When was the last time you actually read through the fine print?
Today’s reality feels so farfetched from the analog days of the 80s when the computer was just a bulky calculator. Pre-internet, it could be said that privacy was relatively easy—simply shut your front door and the world outside will lie in wait. Nowadays, it seems like our neighbourhood has gotten bigger; the entire world feels as if it were just down the street.
In a 2018 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, personal data was noted as a form of modern wealth they called, Identity Capital. “We should expect our identities to be protected from embezzlement and exploitation,” the authors add. It’s difficult to find the line between responsible data collection and misuse; advocates abound for both sides of the fence.
“Online privacy has become one of the most contentious information policy debates of recent times,” notes Adam Therier in an investigative article entitled, The Pursuit of Privacy in a World Where Information Control is Failing. Further on in the text, he discusses the value of education and digital literacy as tools to fight against invasion of privacy. Will that be enough?
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It’s important to understand that privacy itself is a buoyant and flexible term, not immune to the changing landscape of the times and is subject to many lenses: philosophical, political, economic, social, etc. Semiotics aside, it’s useful to analyse how we may safeguard ourselves in the hyperreality of today’s digital universe.
Data is King: Cambridge Analytica, in hindsight
If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, then you might be familiar with this particular scandal. It’s difficult to summarise just exactly what went wrong in the 2018 Cambridge Analytica and Facebook debacle. Although it's infamously gone down in history as the event that gave birth to countless memes of Mark Zuckerberg stunned by questions from members of the US Congress.
In a nutshell, data mining company Cambridge Analytica (CA) developed behavior predicting algorithms/ programmes through information they harvested from Facebook, which many consider a breach of personal privacy. Furthermore, it was suggested that the company used the data to manipulate elections both in the US and abroad. Now this all seems like something out of a dystopian novel, but the reality is that data collection happens every day—granted not always in the scale and boldness of CA.
In hindsight, the CA scandal unearths bigger issues with society-at-large. As the internet and digital atmosphere continue to evolve and grow, so does the ambiguity of its limits. Understanding that this technological paradigm-shift has happened merely within our lifetimes is key. There is obviously still much to learn and more importantly, define, about the ethics of online behaviour.
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Privacy as Commodity
Now that Privacy has become quite scarce (especially in the milieu of big media and the world wide web), it’s become a sought after good. People continue to invest in exclusivity. Philosopher-author Slavoj Žižek notes in his 2018 political treatise, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, that the priorities of high net-worth individuals have geared towards privacy to minimise security risks. This is relatively supported by a New York Times article tackling the intricacies of privacy as an economic asset. Author Amanda Hess writes, “[Privacy] is increasingly seen not as a right but as a luxury good.”
“We’ve come to understand that privacy is the currency of our online lives, paying for petty conveniences with bits of personal information. But we are blissfully ignorant of what that means,” she continues. In the end, our digital footprints are easily sold; some think that this alone is too much but we all know it's the tip of the iceberg. Where do we draw the line?
Now that it has become increasingly difficult to defend oneself from constant surveillance, data protection comes at a cost from all sides—from premium VPN subscriptions, end-to-end encryption to password protectors and generators—there’s a lot of ways to stay guarded, yet these solutions often come with a price tag. VPN (short of Virtual Private Network) connections allow us to stay anonymous online by blocking third-party devices from obtaining important information like your location, browsing history, or personal details. Typically, high-end VPNs cost a lot of money. Although there are Free VPN subscriptions, these usually come with limited safety features.
In the context of modern wealth, it’s important to understand the value of Identity Capital. Online and physical security stand at par with each other when it comes to fiscal and social safekeeping. Without care, it may cost us more than just search results and petty footprints.
Privacy is increasingly seen not as a right but as a luxury good.
— Amanda Hess, New York Times
Recalibrating our Perception
It is understandable why privacy comes at a high price; it’s economics 101: supply and demand. Whilst data can be seen as abundant in supply, its availability is still consistently regulated and reformulated as laws develop through time. Thus, demand remains high and protecting our Identity Capital remains costly (both financially and socially speaking).
It can be quite jarring to understand where to begin. Still, the first step towards protecting oneself online is simple: read the fine print. Instead of clicking I Agree so nonchalantly, take the time to understand the programmes and applications you’re feeding into your device. Yes, it can be quite tedious but it’s the click-reflex that makes the jobs of data miners that much easier.
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There’s a lot of ways to guard yourself but it does take investment. It may seem superfluous to spend on data protection services, but it might help if you think of your online presence as you would your home. You wouldn’t leave your doors unlocked all day. We must rethink the way we perceive our online data—it’s not just a by-product of our daily habits. It is a form of personal wealth (and one that is in high demand at that).
Next time you want to find out just what kind of movie you are… perhaps, think twice if it’s worth it.