Why digital privacy matters.

Image credit: Christian Stewart

Over the past years I started to take back the control of my data online. I deleted a bunch of accounts, some of which I replaced with an open source service. Although I had some doubts as to whether I would seriously miss some of the ‘free’ services out there, I have to say that it has been a smooth and very rewarding ride so far. I strongly believe that privacy is a key element for a functioning and free society and should therefore be protected. In the information age that we are in now, this concept has become somewhat opaque, while we citizens have become transparent. So let’s have a look at why ditigal privacy matters.

Why even bother?

Do I really take any harm if a private company or a government knows what I like and who I talk to? After all it’s convenient, right? I think there are multiple aspects to those questions.

First of all it should be clear that being careless about the traces left online can have direct consequences. Ads become tailored to what you like and talk about. Algorithms have become really good at analysing you because they are fed a lot of information about you. Ever saw an ad pop up about something that you just talked about with your friend? That’s no coincidence. You might think, well, I’m not influenced by ads. I’m afraid a global 560 billion US Dollar industry does make sure to get their returns on what they invest in. Everyone is affected by ads. Whether that is a bad idea might be debatable, but I’d really rather have the choice.

Online tracking in general is flourishing. Data points collected about you now span multiple devices. If you are someone who earns a decent salary, you could end up paying more for the same thing online. You might be nudged to vote for a certain candidate in office. And almost certainly your newsfeeds are altered accordingly. These things are not new. And some of them are very convenient. But they happen without the consent of the user, without them being able to control it. And this is when we should pay attention I think.

Also private and public bodies should be liable to safeguard the data that they store about you. Nevertheless June 2020 alone has seen at least 92 security incidents and at least 7,021,195,399 breached records. Although GDPR has improved user rights a lot, it turns out that many institutions are incapable or simply unwilling to put the necessary protection in place. I am willing to believe that the recent decision to ban Huawei’s 5G equipment in the entire UK was motivated by some legit concerns, however it’s really only being stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to which country collects your mobile phone locations.

Then there are indirect consequences. People reportedly behave differently when they know that they are being monitored. It might just be that one joke that you decide not to tell on the phone or you might decide not to search for that term because you are going to take a flight to the US the next morning. But our words are subtly altered and our demeanor has changed. These small gestures go a long way and eventually people give up a bit of their freedom and get used to it.

The simple truth is: you just haven’t realised your own worth online yet. Let me explain. You might be happy that a service such as facebook or gmail is free to use, but you’re providing those companies with organic data that has essentially become a currency itself, or as some call it: the new oil. Companies are making huge profits from it, so why not claim a piece of the pie? I think at some point we will be able to set a price for the data that we’re willing to share rather than giving it away for free. There are already companies building business models on this. As Andrew Trask, the clever mind behind OpenMined, puts it: We’re spilling our data everywhere, much like people 200 years ago disposed of their waste in public. Was that healthy? Surely not.

Is there a way out?

Once a measure of data collection or surveillance is in place, it is hard to get rid of it. That’s why it’s necessary to act early on. We should be able to explore parts of life privately and without embarrassment or threat. Bear in mind that it’s never too late to start taking ownership of your data as companies are interested in recent trends. If you replaced a service right now it might not affect how you are targeted immediately, but eventually your information will become out of date. As to things everyone of us can do to reduce their digital footprint, let me say this:

  • Use Firefox or Tor Browser. They come with privacy features built in. At the very least, check privacy settings and use an adblocker. There are other plugins available for major browsers that I’ve found personally useful. If you want to know how trackable your browser is, have a look at this site.

  • If you make sensitive searches related to your health, pregnancy, your financial situation or anything else you might prefer others not to know, then really use Tor browser.

  • Remember that your e-mail address acts as your unique identifier, which is the easiest way to tie together your data across different services. Temporary email services save you from spam when you have to create an account on a site you don’t trust.

  • Please say goodbye to Alexa and co. It baffles me that 1 out of 5 households in the UK has a smart speaker at home. One might think that Orwell’s 1984 would remind people of the Telescreens in everyone’s home. If you’re not convinced then you might want to check your record of every conversation recorded in your home by Alexa.

  • Keep your accounts safe. Use two-factor authentication and passphrases rather than passwords. Even better is a reliable password manager.

  • Consider saying goodbye to facebook. Maybe this wiki page with 556 references at the time of writing can convince you.

How do you know that it works? If you start seeing ads that are really not relevant to you, you are on the right track. You can always check if your email has been part of a known data breach.

Digital privacy in the 21st century

Lawmakers are slowly moving to empower citizens. The US senate recently brought forward a bill to stop facial recognition within law enforcement completely. The Court of Justice of the EU has recently invalidated certain data transfer policies between the EU and the US, urging the US to reform their surveillance laws if they want to continue exchanging data with countries overseas. Public policy develops if people want it to. In the end a large part of the web is based on trust, and companies will not always stop collecting your data even if you opt out of their programs.

People say, If you don’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to hide. The problem with this statement is that the definition of ‘wrong’ can change over time. And when a lot of your online activity is on a permanent record, it might be disadvantageous for you under a new administration. And that is not to say that your records cannot be altered.

No matter how securely a single entity might safeguard its users’ data, it still remains a single point of failure. No system is ultimately safe. That’s why decentralization will play a key role in the near future. It surely is one hell of an engineering job to create systems that have their components located in different locations of the network, ensure distributed consensus and at the same time keep identities private, but blockchain technology shows that it’s possible.

Digital privacy matters because automated collection and processing of personal data is possible like never before, in ways that ad companies and intelligence services in the analog days could have only dreamed of. In the end it boils down to a trade-off between freedom and security. Do tailored ads and messenger backdoors limit your freedom? Certainly. Will a Big Brother government ensure security for its well-behaving citizens? Certainly. We just have to be careful not to lose both in the end.

One last thing: Think for a second where technological advancements have led us. Integrated circuit technology allowed devices to shrink from a room-sized to a palm-sized computer. The rate of progress is not going to slow down! In my opinion, we are already very much dependent on that palm-sized device. Think about what it means if we physically connect to the internet. I am convinced that we will see brain machine interfaces become a routine thing within the next decades. We will be able to directly transmit our thoughts to each other, not needing thumbs to interact with a messenger app via a screen. If we do not develop a good understanding of privacy-protecting policies in the digital world, how will you then be able to say that the thoughts you have are really yours? Tell that to Orwell for a start.



Gregor Lenz
Gregor Lenz
Neuromorphic machine learning

I’m interested in event-based sensors, spiking neural networks and neuromorphic hardware.