Privacy Explained: What It Is, How It Is Challenged, and What to Do About It
With notions of privacy mentioned every month now due to yet another violation on part of some big tech company, social network, or a government, it may seem that the world has entered the new phase of struggle between regular people and powers that be. While it may sound pretentious, it’s not really far from truth, as WikiLeaks or Facebook scandals have shown.
Still, privacy remains a bit vague as a concept for many people. Some of them even say they’re not concerned about their data leaking or silently gathered by companies or governments as they don’t do anything illegal. But, and it’s a big but, privacy goes way farther than keeping your movie preferences or political affiliation to yourself. In this explainer feature, we’ll try to explain why, and, most importantly, what is it all really about.
What is privacy?
First of all, privacy is often confused with personal information, so let’s clear that out. Privacy is your right to keep whatever is yours to yourself, which has to be respected by everyone, corporations and governments included. Your personal information is the manifestation of said privacy.
According to the EU’s laws, personal data is any information or pieces of information that can be tracked back and linked to an “identified or identifiable living individual”, such as:
- A name and surname.
- A home address.
- An email address.
- An identification card number.
- IP address.
- A cookie ID.
The US laws give somewhat similar definition of personally identifiable information, stating that it is “individually identifiable information” including:
- A first and last name.
- A home or other physical address.
- An e-mail address.
- A telephone number.
- A social security number.
- Any other identifier that allows the physical or online contacting of a specific individual (which may include IP’s and cookie ID’s mentioned in the EU’s laws).
However, the media discourse of recent years has merged those two concepts into one. Thanks to the wide use of the internet, they have indeed entwined and became almost inseparable.
What is a violation of privacy?
It can range from a neighbor eavesdropping by your window to an extensive government surveillance program. In most general terms, “privacy violation” means that a person, or a group of people, had to share personal information against their will, without any knowledge they’re doing it, or even by force.
To add a bit more detail, an invasion of privacy as an intrusion upon one’s reasonable expectation of privacy may include:
- Intrusion of solitude.
- Appropriation of name or likeness.
- Public disclosure of private facts.
- False light.
Generally, a reasonable expectation of privacy in this case means that a person whose privacy has been violated had an interest in keeping their affairs private. For example, it is a violation of privacy to eavesdrop on one’s private conversation in seclusion of their own home, but it probably won’t be a violation to overhear someone’s conversation at a park bench, if you aren’t going to use it for defamation or other sinister purposes.
Do governments really violate privacy laws?
Article 12 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) clearly states that nobody can mess with your privacy, family, home, and correspondence arbitrarily, i.e. without any court warrant or a similar ruling. Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states almost the same. Those principles are reflected in the national laws of most countries in the world.
So, do governments really violate privacy laws by deploying mass surveillance? Oh, they so do.
Do tech giants really violate privacy laws?
They do, too. Moreover, it may seem that they do it almost all the time. Thus, Facebook and Google were accused of violating the GDPR on the very first day it became enforceable; Tinder was accused of recording personal data of its users without their consent; and that doesn’t even cover the violations that led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Okay, governments and tech giants are powerful. Can anybody else do it?
They can. A hack may give a stalker a freeway to your computer, and all personal stuff you keep there. Your own ISP tracks everything you do online, and, just a friendly reminder, they know who you are and where you live. And by ‘everything’ we really mean everything: websites you visit, letters you write, memes you giggle at. If you work at an office, chances are your employer does pretty much the same. And, of course, there are old-fashioned ways to violate your privacy offline, don’t let the digital age cloud your judgement.
How to protect your privacy on the internet?
The only way that can give you a 100% guarantee your online privacy is not violated is to keep away from the internet altogether. Other methods can only offer some extent of security. They include:
- Having your own personal VPN.
- Reading all user agreements and never using products that say they can use any of your personal data.
- Installing and continuously updating a good antivirus software.
- Making sure websites you visit are not fraud by checking their certificates.
- Not sharing anything important on social networks or anywhere else online, unless you’re buying something (then see the previous bullet point).
- Using strong passwords; don’t use the same one for different services, and do your best to memorize them.
- Not using the same email for all online services.
And, of course, don’t answer any messages and emails from anyone, unless you know for a fact they are who they say they are.
Privacy is something we all have, and also something that has been continuously violated for years now. While in some cases you can hardly do anything to prevent it, it’s up to you to make sure nothing you hold dear or valuable is up for grabs by anybody. After all, too many leakages of private data originate in users giving their consent without reading a user agreement, or gullibly falling for social engineering techniques.