Internet Privacy and You – An Overview

The Issue

Before the advent of the internet, personal information was much harder to find. People actually had to get to know each other to understand their likes, dislikes, political affiliations, brand preferences, and consumer behavior. There was a much larger barrier between organizations and your private data.

Governments, corporations, and marketers had to get your information directly from you through surveys, a census, a focus group, or a one-on-one interview.

That was a different time. One where internet privacy and security wasn’t one of the biggest concerns for individuals, corporations, and governments.

Now, our online behavior creates all of the data that anyone could possibly need. We leave digital footprints as we post on social media, shop for groceries online, and read our favorite news channels. All of this data is being harnessed by multiple parties. Though their intentions may differ, most intend to monetize your data, one way or another.

They have gone to great lengths to get your data. From making privacy settings confusing to implement, burying data-related information deep in Terms of Service documents, and even using third party companies to gather it.

Unlike the old days, where you could simply shred a physical file with your information, the internet retains and remembers your data forever. It’s saved through multiple cache nodes in data centers all over the world.

Why have we given up our privacy?

We’ve given up our internet privacy due to one primary factor: convenience. Many of the services that we use these days – Facebook, our web browsers, and even operating systems like Windows 10 – use our data to monetize their services.

Remember, a core agreement made between you and these companies when you sign up for their services is that you agree to give them the right to keep and use your data.

This also extends towards many other services and websites that you use, because they use cookies to keep track of your browsing habits.

Just about every online service requires your consent to data collection before you can use them. This is especially true of websites and companies that provide you with free services. They’ve got to make money somehow, and many of them do it through the information they gathered from you – the user. However, many users are not knowledgeable enough to truly understand how much of their internet privacy is being given up voluntarily. This needs to change. We’ve been conditioned to put a premium on convenience, but not on our data privacy and protection.

We put a premium on convenience, but not on our data privacy and protection.

We all make mistakes

There are a number of places where we, sometimes involuntarily, give up our right to privacy. Here are a few of the usual suspects.

Social Media

We’ve moved towards being a society that feels compelled to share everything on social media. While many posts are harmless, seemingly innocuous items can also put our families at risk. By documenting the minute details of our lives, we risk giving people the ability to predict our routines and when we are most vulnerable. This is compounded by the fact that privacy settings often default to “public” – giving anyone in the world access to your social media posts.

Changing these settings can be a chore, forcing the users of these services to dig through multitudes of menus and options in order to get to what they need. Users often get tired of going through these menus and often just give up on enabling their privacy settings.

To give you a better context, here are some of the things that a malicious hacker could glean from an unsecure social media profile:

  • Full names
  • Pet names
  • Children’s names
  • Birth dates
  • Places of residence
  • Hobbies
  • Favorite sports teams

This information can be of great help to identity thieves, because secondary verification methods by institutions often revolve around asking for this very information.

Additionally, because social media has been around for a fair bit of time, some people also run the risk of having the follies of their youth discovered. Things that seemed like a perfectly good idea to post on Facebook while you were a university student in 2006 may not seem so funny over a decade later, when you have a family and career to protect.

In an increasingly sensitive world, some old social media posts have even ended up costing people their jobs. Don’t believe us? Check out James Gunn, who was recently fired from his position as director of Guardians of the Galaxy 3 movie because some of his old twitter “jokes” were deemed to be of poor taste and bad influence on children. We’re not saying that the content of his posts were not in poor taste, what we’re saying is that you can never escape what you’ve shared on the internet.

Digital Services

There is no arguing that the internet has made our lives easier thanks to access to a smorgasbord of services like fitness trackers, cookbooks, one-day delivery services, and live sports streaming. You can find just about anything online with a quick search, and many of these services offer a free or ‘lite’ version.

However, as mentioned earlier, nothing truly comes for free. For example, a fitness app you installed to track calories and workouts may seem free, but it also serves you ads and possibly sells your personal data to researchers and marketers.

Shopping

Online shopping has become an advanced science for those that own the world’s biggest digital retail websites.

Because giants like Amazon and Alibaba operate on such a wide scale, and have an endless sea of products to sell, they must rely on data science and predictive analysis to get the right products in front of you.

In a nutshell, they are using your behavior to predict what you will want to buy next and then advertise those products to you. Not only that, but technology is now sophisticated enough to tailor product prices to you given enough data about you.

Ever looked at a pair of sneakers online and then suddenly seen an ad for them on Facebook and Google? That’s a classic example of how companies can try to influence your purchase decisions long after you’ve left their sites.

 

What puts your online privacy at risk

Weak passwords

Malicious hackers are evolving their password cracking methods on a regular basis. It might be convenient to use an old address, a pet’s nickname, or your middle name

Having a single password for all your accounts could put you at massive risk. This could potentially allow someone to get into your private emails and copy data, make purchases on your Amazon account using your saved credit card details, and attempt to solicit money from your Facebook contacts.

Phishing

Phishing is another popular avenue of attack, thanks to how easy it is to implement. Through compromised links on email, social media, or messenger services, strangers are able to steal vital information – including your logins. Once you’ve been compromised, your loved ones may also be in harm’s way because the stranger with your account will be able to use your identity to message them.

Social Media Settings

The default privacy and security settings for most social media platforms are not very stringent in order to allow as much data gathering and ad revenue as possible. Perform an audit of your social media accounts, including Google and Facebook, and consider managing your preferences for settings such as advertisements.

Visiting unsecure sites

There is a reason why all major digital retailers, banks, and other merchants use secured websites (those that start with https:// and have a padlock next to the address) – they protect all of the data that flows through them.

This helps ensure that your credit card information, addresses, and other important data only travel between you and the merchant website. If you value your data privacy, you should always remember to make transactions on secured sites only.

Unfortunately, even large corporations who run secure sites have fallen victim to malicious hackers,  so remember to stay vigilant.

Illegal Streaming and downloads

Many people, especially in Asia, still haven’t fully warmed up to using paid streaming services like Netflix or iFlix. Plus, due to content laws around the world, people outside of North American often don’t have access to the same movies or TV shows.

To get the latest episodes, many people will turn to streaming websites that run on illegal networks. These streaming websites are easy to spot, as they usually run abnormal advertisements, and have very simple designs. They also normally won’t have any legitimate contact information available. These sites aren’t only unsecure, it’s been discovered that some of them helped run cryptojacking operations that made use of unsuspecting users’ computer resources to help mine for cryptocurrency.

For the non-streamers who take advantage of illegal downloads like The Pirate Bay, getting software, movies, music and books from these sites carry an additional risk: files that are infected with malware.

Remember, nothing on the internet is ever truly ‘free’. One way or another, people are going to find a way to make you pay for it. These are people that don’t care about your data privacy at all.

Device security flaws

The final thing to remember is that even those who take great safety precautions can still be affected by malicious hackers. Why? Because of security flaws that are built into the hardware that you buy.

You could be unfortunate enough to have bought a router with a built-in security flaw that was targeted by a specific attack. Alternatively, you could also have bought a webcam that has weak security protocols that the manufacturer can’t or won’t fix. You could even work for an ocean liner that runs its network on old hardware that is simple to break into.

When something like that happens, there isn’t much fault to be found with the end user. It is simply an unfortunate truth in a world that is connected 24/7: data privacy is always at risk when devices aren’t part of a closed or secure network.

How to protect your privacy on the internet

Constant vigilance is your best ally when it comes to home network security.

There is no panacea when it comes to data privacy and security. It takes a commitment to avoiding simple traps, as well as complex hacks through smart behavior.

Remember, your personal data is worth money to a lot of people, from marketers and government agencies, to malicious hackers and identity thieves. The only way to keep your information safe is to be smart.

It will be a long time before initiatives like the EU GDPR will be a globally followed standard.

It will be a long time before initiatives like the EU GDPR will be a globally followed standard.

Some places, like the European Union, have already taken to starting initiatives like the General Data Protection Regulation. However, until the time that such stringent privacy protection laws are a global standard, you should take steps to keep your personal information safe online.

Here is a list of tips that should help you protect your data privacy:

  • Do not log into open public networks, especially in places like a café or a mall. These are some of the most vulnerable networks you can join. Your security isn’t often a priority and is an open field for malicious hackers to conduct attacks.
  • Always use a VPN if you’re forced to use a public network.
  • Change your password regularly. This might seem like an old tip, but it’s even more important to change your password at least every quarter. Don’t use old ones in a rotation!
  • In addition, don’t use the same password for separate accounts. This makes it much harder for someone to log in to multiple accounts.
  • While we’re still on passwords: make sure to change default passwords for devices that come with them, such as wireless routers, as soon as possible.
  • Learn to use pass phrases instead of password, which are much harder to breach because they use multiple words and spaces in between. An example would be “Lets Be Smart About Security”.
  • If your digital accounts and services allow for Two-factor Authentication (2FA), activate it immediately. This goes for anything from digital banking, social media, to your Steam or PlayStation Network accounts.
  • Don’t leave any devices connected to your network 24/7 if unnecessary, like your webcams and portable hard drives.
  • Never leave your home router and other devices on their default security settings. Always make sure you use your own password and username where applicable.