It’s late at night, you enter through the front door and close it behind you. Just before you go to bed, windows are shut, curtains are closed and doors are locked. You do this to protect your family, your privacy and the objects that make up your life. Why then, is the same attitude not applied to our online data?
While drawn blinds, closed doors and thick walls protect our privacy at home, the digital walls surrounding our online lives are now far more transparent. Those who sit behind these glass walls, made up of companies, algorithms and workers, thousands of people strong, maintain a constant need for our personal information, data and habits, as it drives their business models.
Many of us are quick to lay our personal data at the feet of social media behemoths like Facebook when entering competitions, creating various profiles and linking services out of convenience. Whether it be likes, dislikes, relationships, behavioural traits or political leanings, Facebook is a goldmine for advertisers seeking consumer data.
While some would say we are willingly handing this precious data to Facebook, the fine print isn’t always clear and is rarely read or understood by everyday users. This convenient confusion heavily feeds into platforms’ business models. It is only when controversies erupt and begin to eat away at profits that platforms take action and pretend as if they are not culpable or profiting from such privacy invasions.
This can be seen in the case of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a Facebook led attack on democracy, that affected 87 million people globally. Other instances include the recent controversy surrounding Facebook-connected apps, including period and heart rate trackers, sending private health information to the platform without consent. Despite grossly breaching many people’s idea of what is acceptable, most of these actions abided by Facebook’s own data guidelines. Only after large privacy breaches and the accompanying backlash occur is discussion and action around platform privacy taken.
However, for some social media users, privacy may not be an important concern. It may be an irrelevant background debate, unrelated to essential daily problems. To those users who are unconcerned with the issue of online privacy, I beg the question: If you are comfortable with others exploiting and profiting from your digital private data and information, would you be equally comfortable with those same people examining the private information in your own home? Is it only when this information is misused, leaked, stolen or exploited that you will take interest?
Considering all this, the state of online privacy appears to be in complete tatters. Nonetheless, privacy isn’t truly dead, it’s just finding it hard to breathe at the moment. It is still possible to operate in a relatively private way online. Contrary to some beliefs, this does not require a boycott of all social media, clearing of search history, or constant fear of Mark Zuckerberg lurking in your room, waiting to see what object you punch with a thumbs up. This could involve using end to end encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp, impermanent chat apps like Snapchat, or just not liking or sharing any more than bare minimum personal information with platforms. Though, seeing as it is essential for many aspects of our professional and social lives, this would prove quite inconvenient. For those of us who are avid social media users, the path toward progress is much more complex.
As a consequence of various scandals and concerns, some governments and regulatory bodies have begun to address the path towards digital privacy regulation. Stricter regulations were implemented by the EU in 2018 regarding online data use, setting a precedent for other governments to follow. In the case of Australia, we are currently undergoing an inquiry into the field by the ACCC, with the complete findings and any concrete action, as well as the compliance of actual platforms yet to take place. From their preliminary report, the inquiry has a focus on ensuring tech companies apply greater transparency when explaining their use of personal data and creating oversight of data and algorithm manipulation. Therefore, through enacting these laws and regulations, the digital walls housing our online data grow both stronger and harder to gaze through.
When considering the importance of regulation and oversight, we must remember how deep the seas of online personal data particles are. Made up of our various personal interests, preferences, opinions and desires found on social media, these are sections of our unique personalities and lives reflected in a digital language. As these fragments of information grow in size and detail, we should be ever cautious in protecting them, and thus treating them as they are. Small pieces of ourselves.
All Rights Reserved for Ruben Tefera