The expectation of online privacy has disappeared! In the age of modern instant communication, privacy is a thing of the past. Anyone who uses the Internet should have no expectation of privacy whatsoever. Young people seem to accept this, without hesitation, as they share the most intimate secrets of their lives, first with their friends, but also for review by any complete stranger who gains access to the communications.
Online Privacy: How bad is it?
Online communications may include intimate messages such as personal information, or even worse – nude photos. Nude photography of children, when distributed on the Internet, is a crime. It does not matter if the photos are sent from one underage minor to another one. Mere possession of such photos and any form of their distribution is a crime.
While the sharing of explicit nude photos may seem innocent enough to the underage children involved, the laws of most developed countries do not take the same view about online privacy. “Sexting” is the sharing of explicit photos by uploading the photo images from a smartphone that has a built-in camera. If the participants in “sexting” are under the legal age, then it is regarded as a crime.
The Laws are Not Keeping Up with the Changes
Although it has become so easy to share data in its multiple forms, the laws respecting privacy have not kept pace with the explosion of searchable meta-data. Many companies have an incredible reservoir of meta-data on their constituents.
The most prominent invader of online privacy is search engine companies, with Google leading the pack. Google’s corporate motto is “Do no harm” because they are fully aware that the information garnered from searching and categorizing meta-data can be abused without online privacy protection. The gathered information is very insightful about a person’s habits, interests, and activities. This is why Google now has to deal with the California Online Privacy Protection Act, a California law put into place to deal with individuals and corporate privacy which seems to be frequently violated.
Understanding the Risk
OK. We all love the convenience of being connected. It is wonderful to press a button and have our friends literally at our fingertips. Who would not like this? To have our friends so connected to us is exciting and it does not matter if they are across town or across the world. They seem just like they are so close as if they are in the next room. But there are a few things to keep in mind.
Who Can See You? And for how long?
When a person puts anything on the Internet in an unprotected fashion, the record of this activity is permanent. We are not talking about a day or a month, the record lasts for years.
Is this actually true? If a person as a teenager posts something to the Internet, sends an email, or creates a website or a blog, is the record permanent? Absolutely. Anything put on the Internet for public scrutiny is essentially permanent.
Who Has Access?
There is a strong illusion that access to important personal information is somehow restricted by the groups of authorized “friends” in social media settings. But this is not the case. It is extremely easy for hackers or others with nefarious intentions to gain access to such information.
Anyone who wishes to do so can create a profile of any person by capturing their social media interactions. They can then develop a comprehensive assembly of who they know, what they talk about, what their interests might be, and what activities they participate in, that make up the overall substance of their character.
Differences Between Viewer Groups
One thing that is really important to know is that there is a significant difference between user groups and who is allowed access to Internet postings. For example, Facebook appears to have a system where postings are only shared among the authorized friends of any particular account. In reality, all Facebook postings are readily available to anyone. While it may appear that being a person must be a “friend” to access posting information for any Facebook account, in truth, this information is easily accessible by anyone with a Facebook account.
This is the problem with any public postings on any social media system. For young people, this is very confusing, because the young person only wants to allow their peers access to this information.
It turns out this ability to snoop on individuals has not gone unnoticed by the governments of major developed industrial countries like the USA and the UK. The national security agencies of these countries routinely spy on their own populations, as evidenced by the disclosures made public by Edward Snowden.
Edward Snowden quit the amazing life of a high-paying government job in the paradise of Hawaii. Snowden was unable to continue in good conscience with the massive invasion of privacy perpetrated by the U.S. government in the surveillance of private telephone call records and personal communications.
To give credit to the government’s secret spying program, it is important to take a step back and understand that these methods do uncover terrorist plots while they are being planned. They also allow government agencies to take steps to thwart such plans.
However, there is also a limit to the effectiveness of such surveillance and the possibility of misuse is ever present. Take, for example, an investigative journalist, who as part of his or her job, must investigate terrorist activities. The online activities of this reporter might mirror those of suspected terrorists. Therefore, this sort of online surveillance may give many “false positives” while it is trying to help the authorities discover those who may have nefarious plans.
The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which all Americans of good conscience hold so dear, guarantees the rights of American citizens from unreasonable search and seizure of property. This amendment was voted into law on September 29, 1789. It was ratified by the necessary two-thirds of the states within two years and became a law of the United States on March 1, 1792. Under this law, the U.S. government is not allowed to come into a person’s home and take the property, papers, or evidence of any kind, without due process of law.
Law officers need a court-issued warrant in order to have the right to search private property. What Edward Snowden complained about is the violation of this right, and the massive intrusion into private property and private communications without any oversight of the judicial system. His complaint was that no warrants were issued by any judges and no permission was granted by anyone to do the snooping on the massive scale that the U.S. government engaged in doing.
Online Privacy Issues
The Electronic Media Foundation gives some savvy advice about how to protect your online privacy. It also offers tips about what to watch for in terms of online privacy invasion and activity tracking, including:
- Cookie Tracking – Every commercial website that tracks consumer behaviour places cookies through your browser to make a record of the behaviours of the website visitors. According to LifeHacker, cookies are tiny bits of text stored on your PC, containing the information set by websites such as user preferences, information on your session, or anything else the website needs to keep track of your online behaviour. Learn how to disable or enable cookies here.
- Revealing Personal Information – Use a pseudonym and do not use your real name in any email addresses. Have multiple email accounts for various uses. Never link them together.
- Do not share personal details with people you do not know – Anyone can pretend to be any person online and this is not to be trusted.
- Do not trust websites that offer fantastic rewards for simple information – Nobody gives a laptop computer for entering an email address. If the reward offered is outlandish, it is probably fake.
- Help children learn about privacy issues – The U.S. Government FTC has a law about the privacy of children called the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (“COPPA“).
One of the ways to ensure privacy is to use encryption. Encryption is a process that only allows those who have your encryption key to be able to read your private messages. Many companies are making encryption services easier to use and allowing people the ability to protect their private email messages from being snooped on.
Did you Know?
- PC World has updated these basic privacy techniques in their article entitled “3 essential techniques to protect your online privacy.”
- President Obama recently announced a major privacy agenda.
- 45% of Americans feel online privacy is as important as National Security.
In order to protect online privacy, it takes active steps and it is not something that can be taken for granted.