Privacy has become a huge point of contention in the modern online world as it sits at the heart of the current dominant business model. We now live in a world that is fueled by advertising and filled with technology that is able to better segment, optimize, personalize, and target advertisements to individual internet users. Cracking this code, which involves collecting as much data as possible on the users of online web pages, apps, and services has created some of the biggest companies the world has ever seen including the likes of Meta, Google, Amazon, and many more.
Understandably there has been a vocal backlash against the invasive practices of these big technology companies with people railing against the loss of their privacy. However, actions seem to speak louder than words and there seems to be some sort of a privacy paradox that sees us angry about losing our right to privacy but not really taking action to protect it. The question is then, do we really care about protecting our right to privacy when online?
Privacy in the digital age
Privacy has not remained static as a concept and has changed considerably over the last few decades. Sure, there are plenty of privacy issues that are just as relevant now as they always have been, such as certain aspects of our identities, personalities, behaviors, and embarrassing incidents, which people desire to be kept private. Since the turn of the millennium, however, the free passing and sharing of new types of information about who we are and what we do have both revolutionized the world we live in and opened us up to a wide variety of new privacy concerns including identity theft, lack of control over personal data, and bombardment by spam, and phishing and cybersecurity scams among others.
The last 20 years have seen these news issues, challenges and threats evolve as big tech companies have gone from targeting us based on our membership in certain groups toward more focused and personalized targeting. This in turn led to the development of huge databases filled with personal and private details, which were then sold or in many cases simply breached and leaked. In short, online privacy these days is a mess. It is hard to keep up with, never mind keep on top of, which is one of the main reasons why today, in the digital age, many of us appear to be apathetic about our online privacy.
Invasive terms and conditions
It is easy to think that we simply don’t care about data privacy because we continue to use online services that we know to have invasive privacy policies. Instagram, for example, came in as the most invasive app of all in 2021, according to a report from cloud storage firm pCloud. According to the researchers behind the report, Instagram tracks and collects 79% of its users’ personal data before sharing it with and selling it to third parties. This private data includes search history, location, contacts, financial information, and more.
According to EU law, Instagram and other websites, apps, and services have to tell us about the data they will collect and what they will do with it. This brings us to another key factor that breeds the apparent apathy that grips us when we’re talking about privacy. Sure, these big tech firms tell us about their privacy-invading ways but they do so in confusing language and buried among a mountain of legal speak and technical terms and conditions that would put most of us to sleep. The infographic below, from the Visual Capitalist, shows just how absurd some of the terms and conditions are that the big tech players ask us to consent to before accessing their online services.
Consent vs meaningful consent
We are supposed to offer consent to have our privacy infringed upon by giant tech corporations but in reality, to do so would require huge amounts of our time and possibly even consultation with a lawyer. This means that many of us simply hit the “Agree” button because we need to access the online service rather than because we actually consent to the company doing what they say they will do in the mountain of text we may or may not have just scrolled over. Of course, what this means is that people who do hit consent may not even be thinking about privacy-related issues at all when they agree to the terms and conditions as they haven’t considered for a single second what might be in them. This means that internet users often give consent to big tech operators but it isn’t really meaningful or informed consent.
Do we care about online privacy?
So we’ve established then that just because we use online services that have invasive online policies doesn’t mean that we don’t care about our online privacy. In fact, the truth says something quite different.
The World Economic Forum has compiled a wide variety of investigations and surveys that show just how much we really care about our privacy, particularly in a post-Edward Snowden and Cambridge Analytica world. A Pew Research Study from 2015 indicated Americans had very strong views about their online privacy including a big majority saying it is important to be able to control what information is collected about them. It isn’t just in the US either, with the same World Economic Forum piece also showing that concerns over online privacy are high across a broad range of countries including Spain, Canada, Australia, The UK, and more.
Another Pew Research report, this time from 2019, adds some key insights into what may be going on. The report shows that high numbers of users simply feel helpless over the extent to which their data is harvested both by private companies, such as the big tech companies mentioned earlier, but also by the government. Incredibly, the report says that a whopping 79% of internet users have concerns over data use, which is slightly less than the 81% of internet users who feel they have little to no control over the data that is collected. This is despite the fact that another report highlighted by the World Economic Forum showed that only 14% of the respondents hadn’t taken action to protect their personal information.
The Privacy Paradox
That last point brings us to a very important issue that impacts our ability and motivation to make meaningful decisions and actions that could better protect our online privacy, the privacy paradox. The privacy paradox relates specifically to the phenomena we have been discussing throughout this article, namely that people care about online privacy issues but seem to do very little about them. The Conversation has put together a list of three factors, which likely combine to explain the dynamics at play:
- People find it difficult to associate a specific value to their privacy and therefore, the value of protecting it
- People do not consider their personal information to be their own and thus might not appreciate the need to secure it
- People completely lack awareness of their right to privacy or privacy issues and believe their desired goals (such as a personalized experience) outweigh the potential risks (such as big tech companies using their data for profiling).
These issues touch on what we’ve mentioned earlier, which is a sense of hopelessness and a lack of control over the confusing data practices that internet users feel are forced upon them. In short, we want better privacy protections but feel unable to secure them in the face of such overbearing corporate and government power.
How to take action to protect your privacy
So, with all that being said, we feel the only suitable way to conclude an article like this one is to link to several guides we’ve put together that will help protect your privacy when online:
If you’ve got this far we salute you and hope that we’ve equipped you with plenty of knowledge and tools for taking a stand and protecting your privacy online. The sad fact, however, is that the sheer number of guides available on different topics related to protecting your privacy only further backs up the main point we’ve been exploring in this article, namely that protecting your online privacy is extremely difficult and very messy.