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Will Internet privacy lose its significance and become an obsolete virtue of the past or will it remain an imperative for generations to come?
Internet privacy often refers to “the ability of individuals to control the flow of information and have reasonable access to data generated during a browsing session” (Reputation X Blog, 2015). Yet not many people can say where exactly their personal information is stored and who has access to it, whether it was shared voluntarily or discreetly mined. A famous profile case caused a massive outrage at the time, when Facebook in 2012 conducted a secret experiment, changing news feeds’ content of 689,000 users without their consent to see how it would alter people’s mood (The Guardian, 2012). The questions had arisen whether it was ethical, whether it was legal. Nonetheless, today people enjoy a vast variety of social networks, online stores and entertainment hubs without giving much thought to the amount of personal data they leave while present online.
At the same time governments and various political institutions come to agreement that there is a breech in legislation and the problem of internet privacy needs to be addressed very seriously (Hawtin et al. 2012). As a result, various frameworks and policies, like Privacy Shield and the Right to be forgotten attempt to protect peoples’ privacy online (Gomez et al. 2009). The question is just how effective they are? And will internet monopolists comply with new regulations?
Will Internet privacy lose its significance and become an obsolete virtue of the past or will it remain an imperative for generations to come?
With 3.5 billion of internet users and almost 100% mobile network coverage worldwide (Mendel et al. 2012), (Statista, 2016), internet, with a widespread adaption of smartphones, created a fast-moving global communication environment. The combination of two allows users to search for any piece of information, communicate with others via e-mail and social media, shop and seek entertainment at any time with the ease of a couple finger taps. Internet also, without doubts, has changed how people behave in the online environment as opposed to real life. In one sense internet offers people freedom of expression and instant access to information, but on the other hand it imposes new values while eroding some conventional ones. Privacy, and the way it perceived today, particularly in the cyberspace, is one of them.
The aim of this paper, therefore, is to look at what is the internet privacy and what value people assign to it today, given the pervasiveness of internet in our everyday life. The paper will discuss and analyse why people should be concerned about internet privacy and what consequences society might face if the problem is ignored. The author of the paper will also look at the existing policies and frameworks to protect internet privacy, as well as what step privacy-conscious web users already take to do the same. The paper will conclude with a series of recommendations, both on policy and individual levels.
2. Internet Privacy
Internet privacy, in its simplest form, refers to an individual’s ability to control and access their personal information online (T.R.X 2016). Personal information, by which an individual can be identified, is not necessarily a name or a PPS (SSN) number, but anything from one’s location and search engine queries, to the amount of time spent at any specific online activity. In general, anyone’s presence online and every single click they make generates data and leaves a digital footprint (Figure 1), i.e. it stays in internet forever. Therefore, the size of never stopping data flow on the internet is enormous. In just one second there are 2,579,758 emails sent, 7,574 tweets posted, 775 Instagram photos uploaded, 68, 827 YouTube videos viewed, 59, 715 Google searches made and overall 43,616GB of internet traffic generated (Internetlivestats.com). Clearly, a regular internet user can potentially have a hard time to control and access all the information that was ever explicitly shared online or ‘left behind’ unintentionally (Raicu, 2017), and an unthinkable level of consciousness must be exercised to track own online activity.
Figure 1 Digital Footprints
In contrast, hidden from a public eye, there are ever-growing numbers of data centres around the globe, with 8.6 million to be in place by 2017, as predicted in 2014 (Smolaks, 2014). In there all the crumbs of data that were left on the internet are stored and analysed by the means of intelligent computations, called data mining. Data mining converts raw data that people’s online activity generates into meaningful pieces of information. Once information has a meaning, it gains monetary value and can be sold to a third-party company, which will typically use this information for marketing and targeted advertising purposes.
Apart from commercial private entities, who always want to know more about users’ tastes and preferences, so they can target them with better tailored advertising and sell things, there are others who track people on the internet. These are cyber criminals and government agencies. Both appear to represent diametrically opposite interest groups, but nonetheless both are after the same thing – personal information. With predictions of global annual cost of cybercrime to grow up to $6 trillion by 2021 (Morgan, 2016), internet security experts emphasize that protection of personal information online is as urgent as never before.
In 2013 the world was shaken by Edward Snowden’s revelations made about U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) unprecedented surveillance practises. As per September 2016, he released over 7000 top secret documents (Szoldra, 2016) and it seems that very few could escape from the all-seeing all-hearing NSA. The agency watched ordinary people, by accessing servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Skype, YouTube and Apple, as well as it spied on state officials by bugging their offices and intercepting internet communications in Europe and the rest of the world (Szoldra, 2016).
Therefore, given its virtual nature, internet serves well all of these interest groups, because often people behave less carefully online and expose too much personal information, something that would not be done in real life. Although intangible, internet frauds and identity theft, malware, surveillance even online bullying and harassment are real, and can cause serious harm to individuals. Nevertheless, e-mail, Google search engine, social networking sites and online stores – the utilities that heavily track users and collect their data, are still the most widely used services on the internet (Statista, 2016). Does it mean that they are deemed to be safe among internet users or is it the case that the benefits people gain from using these services outweighs their privacy concerns?
3. Online Activities
The convenience of internet and a widespread use of smart technology clearly dominates privacy concerns that may arise at any time. One’s typical day starts with reaching out for a smart phone to check what time is it, perhaps quickly see what is the weather forecast for today, go through email and deleting annoying advertisement newsletters along the way from online stores one happened to buy something a while ago. Then scroll through news feed on a favourite social network, leaving ‘like’ under the couple of posts and finally one is ready to start the day. That is a lot of information received within few minutes. However, what is more striking is the amount of data such quick interaction generated. What mobile apps did one use, what time of the day, how long the interaction lasted, what was typed into search box, or what was ‘liked’ – all of that gives away information about the user, by exposing one’s interests and preferences. This example illustrates that while one could have enjoyed the described interaction in the private environment, the online activity was tracked and thus de facto was not private. The author of this paper believes that people should be more informed about the problem of internet privacy and thus wants to highlight how the most common internet utilities, e-mail, search engines, social networks and online shopping can undermine it.
3.1 The know-it-all Google
According to Statista (2016) email remains the most popular online activity with visiting websites to find information out of personal interest coming straight after. And the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of these two activities is most likely Google. Being a synonym for ‘search on the internet’ and owning about 60 per cent of search engines market share (Ecloudbuzz 2017), Google came a long way to become what it is now – one of the leading global brands and service providers in the internet industry. Apart from mailbox and search engine, Google’s most popular services are Chrome, Android, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Translate, Google Docs, Google Drive, just to name a few (Ecloudbuzz, 2017). These are the utilities most people are familiar with and use them frequently.
3.2 Social Networking Sites
Social Networking Sites (SNS) are defined as online platforms that allow users to create a public profile and interact with other users on the website (Technopedia, 2017). The emergence of SNSs, like Facebook, caused a major shift in society’s cultural norms and played a significant role in how people view and value their privacy online. The new culture of displaying life events, big and small, reacting to and expressing opinions about hot news stories has grown rapidly and became part of modern life. Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of Information Technology and Behavioural Economics at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, points out that it is only natural for people to socialize and share information about themselves. Moreover, self-disclosure has several benefits like boost in self-confidence and growth of social capital, with the ‘ability to share thoughts and feelings with others’ being the feature of social networks that people give high value (Acquisti et al, 2015).
By the same token, SNSs is the ideal environment for self-exhibition and many users carefully build their profiles to make certain impression. Thus, if self-promotion is the prime reason for using a SNS, users are more likely to dismiss the notion of privacy, as the contrary of that – the publicity – is desired, the greater the better. On the other hand, people who use SNSs for humble purposes like staying in touch with family and friends, tend to be more cautious about their personal content to be seen by public and reach out for privacy settings to limit access to it (Utz & Kramer, 2009).
The current privacy settings of the majority SNSs’ provide their users with fine-grained functionality. That is users can set what will be seen in their profile and to whom. However, this is where users’ control over their personal information ends. Just like any other company in the industry of internet utilities, SNSs heavily rely on users’ data, to improve their services and make profits. Facebook, being the most popular SNS in the world, is an inexhaustible resource in all the possible meanings. Its phenomenon has been closely studied by behavioural psychologists and social scientists ever since it gained such wide user base. Firms and businesses, having access to Facebook users’ tastes and preferences, are constantly expanding their consumer base, while Facebook itself, never stops to explore how to utilise all the data it has at its disposal. For example, one of the recent Facebook’s inventions that found the application to its largest database of personal photos in the world, is the program called ‘Deep Face’.
In March 2014, the ‘Deep Face’ – a facial recognition program, which can identify an anonymous person with 97.25 percent accuracy (Forbes, 2014), has stirred up the entire tech community and privacy advocates rushed to scrutinize the possible outcomes the societies might face. Prior to that, in June 2013, Alessandro Acquisti, in his TED talk ‘What will future without privacy look like?’, presented to the audience the results of his experiments that were conducted with less accurate (about 40 percent accuracy) facial recognition system combined with Facebook’s photo database. Acquisti emphasised, that such technology, when adopted, will leave no place for privacy, as anyone’s face picked from a crowd, could be identified with all the publicly available information attached. Aggregation of information is one of many privacy violation problems that Daniel J. Solove, one of the world’s leading experts in privacy law, spoke about. It refers to ‘combining pieces of information [people] might not care to conceal’ into something that they, on contrary, would rather to hide (Solove, 2008).
Another striking example by Acquisti, was that companies can access Facebook users’ profiles including friends’ lists, and can create ‘facial composites’ by using the profile photos of user’s two favourite friends and combining them together. Acquisti says, that people are unlikely to recognize even their own face in such facial composites. Thus, the marketers expect that the product they want to sell will appear more appealing if the ‘person’ who advertises it looks familiar to the user (Acquisti, 2013). This example illustrates, just how people’s behaviours and consciousness can be manipulated and how intrusive such manipulations are. Internet will never cease to evolve, and the current generation witnesses how it has been transforming from the boundless information resource into controlling, consumerism focused, behaviour – tracking marketplace.
3.3 Online Shopping
Gone are the days when people would spend time and effort wandering from store to store, especially if one was after some unique item. Internet changed the way people (in the developed countries) shop, and retail businesses, keeping up with consumer demand, move their stores online. The benefits of online shopping are obvious: it is convenient and it saves a lot of time. Whether it saves money, is questionable, because online stores just like physical ones have their own tricks to make people spend more.
In the context of privacy, online stores are no different from search engines and social networking sites – they track consumers’ behaviour to customize service and improve shopping experience. Cookies, the ones that ought to be accepted to continue browsing, are snippets of code, that are placed on user’s device to collect information during the browsing session. The earlier mentioned DoubleClick is particularly notorious in placing banner ads across the web, which are quite often not a big flashing things, but a tiny 1×1 pixels GIF files (HowStuffWorks, 2000), and clearly would not be visible to users.
Generally, cookies are inseparable element of online shopping and considered to be harmless, as their primary intention is to personalise one’s subsequent visit to an online store. However, they can be used in price discrimination, that is different people to be charged different prices for the same good from the same online store. A cookie tracks what one searched for, what was bought and how much was paid, and based on that consumer’s willingness to pay for a good is determined (PrivacyRights.org, 2017).
More and more people switch from PCs and laptops to their mobile devices for casual online activities like the ones described above, and the following section will look at how smart technology contributes to peoples’ online privacy come to naught.
3.4 Smart technology
Smart phones, tablets, TVs and watches are no big news these days and many people own at least one such piece of smart technology. What all smart devices have in common though is that every new one that appears on the market promises to improve people’s life, make it more efficient and productive, make it more fun. So, what exactly makes a piece of technology a ‘smart’ one? It appears it is not only an internet connection, and as Miraz Jordan, who writes about technology and the web, has nicely put it ‘What ‘smart’ really does is to take some input from somewhere, apply some ‘brainpower’ and take some actions. (2011). Such ‘brainpower’ comes in all sorts of shapes and functionalities and it is known as mobile apps.
Without mobile apps, all today’s smart technology wouldn’t be as smart. According to Statista, the number of available apps in the Apple App Store as per January 2017 was 2.2 million and in Google Play Store – 2.6 million apps in December 2016, with most popular categories being games, business, education, lifestyle and entertainment. For comparison, it all started with 800 apps in App Store back in July 2008 (Statista). These figures show that the mobile app market is ever growing, offering users a myriad of compact software solutions to suit any taste, occupation, age group or life situation. More than that, every respectable business or service provider is simply obliged to have a quality mobile app today, or they risk to be outrun by more tech savvy competitors. Thus, the variety of app is huge, but what also varies is the approach mobile app developing companies take when it comes to users’ privacy and handling users’ personal information.
A recent study reveals that a significant proportion of mobile apps, both iOS and Android, collect a lot more data that it is necessary for their performance (Li et al. 2016). For user to get full functionality of an app, they must allow access to certain features like camera and photo albums, phone book and geolocation, IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) and UDID (Unique Device ID). Thus, once an app gets permission to access these, it collects user data all the time. As an illustration of data over-collection problem, same study gives an example of how much information a single photo, taken by smart phone, can contain. That is where and when photo was taken, and most importantly by whom. Another example is iPhone’s system service called ‘Frequent Locations’, which maps user’s geolocation and organises it by user’s most visited places and duration of the stay (Li et al. 2016). While the users can turn off the geolocation option, they do not have access to the map itself and the related analysis. Thus, Apple’s statement about users being in control (ref.) of their own data might be true but only to a certain degree.
Smart homes, cars and entire cities, on the other hand, is the next step in technological advancement societies already began to witness. Internet of Things (IoT), a network consisting of interconnected smart devices, is where all the present high-tech industrialization is heading at a steady pace. It is expected that by 2020 50 to 100 billion devices will be connected to the internet (Perera et al., 2013) and apart from individual comforts, it promises to benefit entire communities in a form of reduced pollution and waste, efficient energy consumption and optimisation of all other aspects of human lives (Forbes, 2014) In IoT every single sensor and device will collect data and with smart phone being a pivotal device for people to navigate smart cities, one of the biggest challenges the IoT faces is the management of sensitive information, users’ privacy and security.
Therefore, the larger something gets, the harder it is to control. This is clearly the case with personal information, with 91% of adults in U.S saying that people no longer can fully manage it (Raine, 2016). Users embrace the abundance of technology and complimentary software, and assign extremely high value and put trust into their smart phones, only because of physical ownership. However, it is important to understand that what is stored in smart phones, often very personal and sensitive information, does not belong solely to the individual. People grant access to their information to app developing companies and internet service providers without fully understanding the potential implications. As consequence, their need for privacy is gradually replaced by dependency on their smart phones.
4. Privacy regulation
4.1 Government regulation
There is significant imbalance in how rapidly technology evolves and how slowly legal and regulatory bodies adapt to keep up with these advancements (ted talk). Similarly, the difference in how individual privacy is protected in Europe as opposed to U.S. – the homeland of the world leading internet and tech companies, challenges the global community to find a common ground across international jurisdictions to regulate the online environment without imposing overcontrol, but protecting individual right for privacy at the same time.
4.2 Privacy Law in Europe
In EU, individual privacy and personal data protection are considered to be fundamental human right (Weiss and Archick, 2016). Under European legislation, and precisely the 1995/46/EC Data Protection Directive (DPD) ‘personal information can be collected under strict conditions and for legitimate purposes’ (Dimov, 2013). For example, if personal data is provided to a company, it can only be used by the company and only for a precisely specified purpose. So, if a company writes in their data privacy statement that data will be used for statistical purposes, the company is not allowed to use it for another purpose, for example, marketing. However, this does not mean that data cannot be used for marketing, the data privacy statement must explicitly state that, leaving it up to individual to decide whether it is deemed acceptable or not. Moreover, the Directive gives individuals the right to access and correct their personal information, and if required, seek compensation (Weiss and Archick, 2016).
4.3 Privacy Law in U.S.
In the U.S., there is no uniform data privacy and protection framework like in Europe. Instead, data protection is regulated by many state and federal laws, which vary depending on the sector (Weiss and Archick, 2016). For example, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects personal identifiable health data, whereas Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) protects privacy of children under 13 years of age (Dimov, 2013). In regards with personal data collection, it is recognised that there is a gap in regulation, and while privacy advocates urge to address the problem at the legislative level, U.S. companies have the advantage to use the data as they deem to fit.
4.4 From Safe Harbour to Privacy Shield
The Safe Harbour Agreement (2000) was issued to address the concerns raised following establishment of EU Data Protection Directive in 1995. To continue mutually beneficial trading relationships, including cross-board data transfers, the European DPD demanded that U.S. meet certain standards in personal data protection that the DPD would deem to be sufficient. Thus, the U.S. companies were obliged to adhere to the Safe Harbour agreement and to comply with its seven principles (Weiss and Archick, 2016), outlined in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Seven Safe Harbour Principles
Fifteen years past, the agreement was declared invalid for several reasons. It is said, that at the time when Safe Harbour was put in practise, ‘the internet was in its infancy’ and fifteen years was enough for it to grow, so the seven agreement principles no longer covered all the possible implications in personal data handling. Moreover, Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA’s surveillance programmes targeted at EU officials and regular citizens, also gave motivation to seek improvements in existing framework to secure transatlantic trade and data flows, and protect EU citizens’ the right for privacy. Given mutual interest to reach a consensus, the U.S. and EU officials shortly presented the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield agreement (February, 2016), which complemented the Safe Harbour’s seven principles with a set of additional amendments to provide ruling for a wider spectrum of data protection, given the ever-changing internet environment.
However, this case wouldn’t be complete without a man, whose name today is known to everyone for whom ‘privacy’ is not an empty sound. Max Schrems, an Austrian lawyer and privacy activist, filed a complaint against Facebook in 2012, when he, as a student at the time, applied into practise ‘the right to access’ his personal data and discovered how much information, a 1200-page document, Facebook had about him (Hill, 2012). The document included data that been long time deleted, and Schrems accused Facebook of keeping the data that was no longer relevant, but also that the company provided incomplete file. Facebook, just like Google and Microsoft, has its headquarters in Ireland, which means that the company must comply with European privacy law (Hill, 2012). This step was a beginning of a five-year lawsuit, which drew attention to the shortcomings in regulation of global tech companies operating in Europe and their stance on data transfers and data protection law.
4.5 The Right to be forgotten
On the juridical battlefield for the right to privacy between Europe and global tech companies, the Right to be forgotten is another victory, which proves that privacy violations should not be dismissed. On contrary, it shows that these violations should and can be challenged, even when the violator is one of the world’s leading internet company, like Google.
The right to be forgotten is currently limited to Europe alone, and it came about in 2010 as a result of a dispute brought up to the European Court of Justice by a Spanish man, Mario Costeja González. He claimed that there was information on the internet which ‘infringed with his right to privacy’ (Arthur, 2014). The European Court of Justice recognised that the information in question was ‘inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive’ and ruled in favour of González. The Court requested Google to remove the links to the pages from its indexes, which means that while information could still be present online, it is no longer searchable.
As per February 2016, as an extension of the ruling, Google agreed to block search results across all its European domains. It says that 386,038 “right to be forgotten” removal requests were received since the ruling, and it has accepted approximately 42% of them (Gibbs, 2016). While Google still has its say to decide whether information is deemed to be necessary for the public or not, and only then it removes the indexes, this ruling has potential to be extended to any search engine in the future, giving individuals a second chance so that they would not to be haunted by mistakes of their past.
5. Raising privacy awareness
5.1 Interest groups
For European internet users, it is certainly reassuring to know that their homeland legislation takes the privacy protection law so seriously. The landmark cases of the European Court of Justice against internet monopolists always get wide media exposure, reviving privacy debate among the public. In this debate, there are three major camps: pro and against privacy, and those who still live in ignorance.
The side which insists that “Privacy is no longer a social norm” (Zuckerberg, 2010) is all the internet corporate sector where users’ personal data is at the centre of its business model in couple with state agencies. The group in the middle – people who tend to take a passive stance on the issue, do not express major concerns saying “I am not that interesting. I have nothing to hide”. Turns out this a common view, and according to privacy advocating groups, comes from the lack of awareness. A famous quote by Edward Snowden addresses this misunderstanding:
“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
Snowden, just like Max Schrem, belongs to a growing body of privacy advocates and experts, including Bruce Schneier, Marc Rotenberg, Daniel J Solove, Alessandro Acquisti, Helen Hissenbaum and many others, who recognize the importance of privacy as an inherit human right which is essential for personal integrity and dignity (unesco paper and schneier). Together they withstand the permissiveness of internet monopolists who work hard to push society into believing that privacy is nothing, but a dated sentiment. These people raise awareness and encourage individuals to take proactive steps and protect their privacy online.
5.2 People still value their privacy
There is a number of statistical evidences that despite common view, that privacy has little value in among internet users, people are concerned about controlling their personal information online and generally are dissatisfied with the current state of things.
A research conducted by TRUSTe (2016) provides a detailed insight of people’s concerns about internet privacy and their level of awareness. Same survey was carried out in U.S. and Great Britain, and key findings are summarised in Table 1.
Table 1. Consumer Privacy Index 2016. TRUSTe
|Internet users worry about their privacy online
|Understand that companies share their personal information||31%||25%|
|Avoid companies that do not protect their privacy
|Concerned about not knowing how personal information is collected online||68%||73%|
|Believe that they adequately protect their online data
|Read privacy policies
|Changed social media settings
|Turned off location tracking
|Deleted cookies, cache and browsing history
|Limited their online activity due to privacy concerns
|Think online privacy should be a human right||64%||68%|
Another report carried out by Symantec, Norton Antivirus software creators, surveyed 7000 people across a number of European countries. The report reveals that prevailing number of Europeans still don’t trust businesses and state, and their ability to protect and handle people’s personal information in satisfactorily manner (Symantec, 2015). Here are some interesting figures from the report:
- 57% of respondents have concerns that their personal information was not safe
- 59% had negative experiences in the past, like social media account hack, online scam, or data breach notice from a company, whose services they used
- Only 14% were positive about personal information being passed to a third-party company
- 81% said that their data has high value
- But only 25% reading terms and conditions before proceeding or signing up for a service
- 66% were unsure what steps to take to protect personal information on the internet
- 69% agreed they would take a break from the internet altogether to protect their personal information
Therefore, the overall trend is apparent: people are concerned about online privacy and their personal information in particular. They do take steps to protect it, but still would like to be more informed on the subject. People want to know and be in control of how their personal information is collected and used by organisations and businesses. Furthermore, if companies continue to dismiss this growing lack of trust among their existing and potential users, they are running into risk to lose them altogether, and their high revenues as a result.
Is it not a valid reason to finally address the problem?
The Internet by no doubt shaped the world by making it one global community where there are no limits in expanding people’s horizons. It has become an integral part of modern society with organizations, enterprises and entire infrastructures depend on it. With new technological advancements and consumer products turning smart, it is no surprise that individuals are swayed by all conveniences and fun-factor internet and smart technology have to offer. However, all this comes at a cost of people’s privacy being heavily compromised, by organisations and businesses that found a way to monetarize all the data that internet activity produces. So today, privacy became a major concern for all when using the internet. Moreover, surveillance issues and data breaches depress the situation even more and people feel even more vulnerable, because no individual is fully safe from the consequences of privacy violation. The reports from TRUSTe and Symantec prove that internet users lose trust in the businesses and organisations due to lack of transparency in regards with handling their personal information. Some people are even ready to withdraw from using the internet if that means their privacy is more protected from doing so.
The author agrees with the results and recommendations suggested in both reports, that internet companies should reconsider their stance on consumers’ privacy. Internet users, 35% according to TRUSTe, want transparency about how their personal information is collected and used. Giving people controls over who can access their personal information, what type of information is collected and how it might be used, will surely give competitive advantage to companies and organisations who will be the first to address these concerns. (Babel, 2016). For the time being, to regain peoples’ trust should become number one objective for all companies and organisations operating on the internet.
The Internet will never stop changing, nor it will ever be perfect, but taking action to protect privacy, a virtue that will never lose its meaning, will be a good step to make it better.
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