Time to take your privacy a bit more serious

by Ivar Slavenburg

Ever since the Snowden revelations privacy is a big subject. A recent report from PEW revealed that Americans did take action to protect their online privacy better. On the other hand, companies like Facebook and Google, who mainly make their money by selling your, anonymised, private information to anybody, are still showing healthy profits. The reason for the latter seems to be that for some reason most consumers don’t care to much about the information they share with these particular kind of companies. If they can get the functionality they desire for free, they don’t mind that their information is sold to who ever and their behaviour on the internet is followed to the closest details. In these cases, privacy is apparently not a major concern. If asked, most people feel they have nothing to hide.

But that is a major misunderstanding…

More organisations want your information

In a recent speech, Apple CEO Tim Cook reiterated the importance of privacy. He vowed that Apple is not unnecessarily storing any personal information, and, more importantly, it will not share the information it does compile with anybody. Major encryption algorithms should ensure that even law enforcement agencies are not able to get to your data.

With more and more data either gathered or flowing through your mobile devices, that is of uttermost importance! Only consider the possibility that hackers can get access to data on your phone used for Apple Pay. That is an absolute nightmare scenario for both Apple, the credit card companies involved, Banks, Shops and last but certainly not least, the owner of the phone.

It should be noted that also vendors that use a version of Android as their OS for mobile devices are using some form of encryption. Not to mention Blackberry, that became popular for its security features. However, if that means that a company like Google is still able to capture enormous amounts of data and then sells it to the highest bidder, one can wonder whether this is really that effective, as this means only certain data is protected. The rest of your information is still, to a certain extent, out in the open.

Not only companies like Facebook and Google are notoriously searching for any method to collect as many data of you as they possibly can. Nowadays, the most eager organisations that feel it’s necessary to collect anything about you are governments, both your own and foreign. The revelations of Snowden showed how far government agencies are willing to go to get their hands on information about you. Using the fear for terrorists attacks, governments have significantly expanded their legal space for spying on their own civilians and those of other countries. Even government officials of “befriended” nations are not save for the prying eyes of digital spies.

At the same time, governments hardly make any effort to prove that this expansion leads to any significant more safety. Recent “successes” in catching terrorists before they could do any harm were used to “prove” the value of this extension of legal power. Looking more closer, it turned out that most of the time, classic methods, e.g. interviews and phone taps, were used to find the (alleged) perpetrators. Clearly, atrocities like in Paris and more recently in Copenhagen could not be prevented. Also the highjacking of people in Sydney was not foreseen by any agency, even though they knew the perpetrator as he had caused trouble before.

Evidence without a charge

Though The Netherlands is often considered a very liberal country, its track record for spying on its citizens is notoriously bad. The level of phone taps has been among the highest in the world for years. Even in the worst banana republic there is less change somebody is recording or actually listening in on your phone conversation than in The Netherlands. With the rise of Internet, the Dutch government has again gone through great length to ensure it can monitor and save everything its citizens do, often for many years and without any evidence of people being spied on doing anything wrong. The responsible government official, Ivo Opstelten, who was recently fired from office for an illegal drugs deal years ago, made it clear that the Dutch government only intends to further expand its spying practices. He recently stated, that (quote) “saving of certain data of customers is therefore necessary, because it can’t be determined up front when data is collected whether it is of a defendant or not”. Effectively, this means that any citizen can, at one time in his or her life, become a defendant, so the state is already collecting evidence against him or her.

Even the European Union, not exactly the most pro citizen government organisation in history, is considering these practices unlawful. However, though the Dutch government is normally caving in rather quickly to any demand coming from Brussels, it has ignored its remarks on this matter. Only recently a judge ruled that parts of the laws on recording internet traffic are illegal. There is no indication that the Dutch government is backing down on its intentions and new laws are being made that will allow it to continue its practices.

You better have something to hide

As said, it seems that most users of internet services don’t care to much about the fact that both commercial organisations and governments use it to collect as much of information about them as possible. Either to sell it, or to use it at any time against them in the court of law, if they so please.

A much heard argument is “I have nothing to hide”, but this is simply not true. Whoever you are and whatever you do, you have many reasons to hide certain information about you. Things that other people or organisations simply don’t have to know.

Why are you and me so careless then? The problem is that we judge our actions based on our own moral opinions and background. The information we post on social media is for us completely acceptable. As psychologists can tell you, everybody thinks his or her actions are morally acceptable. Our morals are shaped according to what we do, not the other way around. In other words, if we do it ourselves, we consider it acceptable.

You are not the judge of that

Unfortunately, when it comes to judging your behaviour, particularly on social media, it are not your morals that count, but those of the person looking at your posts. Your behaviour is considered in the eye of the beholder. Surely, you and your friends find your topless photos of your latest holiday very interesting and totally acceptable. And yes, the photos where you are drunk and stoned, taken at that awesome party a couple of years ago are totally funny and a nice reminder of an incredible evening.

Other people, like e.g. prospective employers will likely see it differently. No carefully crafted resume can compete with such posts. Companies like Facebook and Google will profile you as a nudist, alcoholic and abuser of semi legal substances. Though it is interesting to see what kind of advertising this results in, it should be clear that it can significantly hurt your interests, both business and private, in the long run. Not to mention that your substance abuse will probably also be noticed by the spy agencies. So for a long time your behaviour will be extra carefully monitored. There is no reason why you should think anything favourable will come from this.

So, when it comes to judging whether you should post certain information on Facebook, or any social network for that matter, you should not consider whether you or your friends feel it’s morally acceptable, you should consider who else could possible have access to this information and what for they could possibly use it. Hopefully, soon it will become clear that these people and organisation can have a totally different moral landscape than you and can cause you serious trouble if they want to. There is only one way to ensure that they can’t access it, by not posting it on the internet in the first place.

So yes, you do have something to hide for the prying eyes of other people and you should hide it as carefully as possible.