Should We Care About Online Privacy?

On March 21, the House of Representatives reinforced the Senate’s resolution to repeal the Obama-era regulation on internet privacy before it even went into effect.

The prior regulations would have required internet service providers to get a consumer’s consent before collecting and sharing their web browsing and location data. Providers would have also been required to disclose the type of collected and shared information. However, on April 3, President Trump signed the congressional resolution finalizing the overturn of the FCC protections. Additionally, since the GOP used the Congressional Review Act, the FCC is barred from enacting similar protections. In light of these events, the public must ask itself two questions: What does this mean and does it matter?

Frequent online shoppers are familiar with webpage advertisements that suddenly pop up promoting an item that they looked up on Google a few days ago. In case you’re wondering, these targeted ads are not a mere coincidence. For years, companies have tracked consumers’ digital lives and shopping preferences to find profitable information, and every year, their capabilities expand. How vast are these data mining operations? How much information can a company uncover about their consumers?

A few examples of data mining

1. Facebook tracks your buying patterns

According to this CNN article, in 2012 alone, Facebook bought the data of 70 million US households from a data mining firm called Datalogix. A year later, Facebook revealed that they were tracking users to help with targeted advertising. Facebook users were outraged and the company eventually added an opt-out setting to users. (Step by step instructions on how to opt out)

2. Facebook likes can reveal personality traits

The same CNN article also points out how a person’s “Likes” on Facebook can reveal their personality traits and demographics. According to a 2013 study by the University of Cambridge, a simple “like” allows researchers to make inferences about an individual’s most personal details such as sexual orientation, political leanings, and religion. While some information gathered by the analysis improves custom recommendations, companies, employers, and the government could potentially abuse confidential information such as one’s sexual orientation, political leanings, or attitude toward drug use.

3. Target can find out about your pregnancy before you tell anyone

In 2012, Target made news when details about its mailer system, which tracks purchase history and then mails relevant coupons to shoppers, were released. Andrew Pole, a Target statistician, created a program to determine a customer’s pregnancy probability based off fluctuations in grocery and toiletry purchases. This program could also estimate a mother’s due date within a small window allowing Target to send coupons at very specific stages of pregnancy. Shortly after the program was implemented, its accuracy brought startling and uncomfortable results. In Minneapolis, a man demanded an apology from a local Target manager after his daughter received coupons for maternity clothing, nursery furniture, and pictures of smiling infants. When the manager called to apologize again, the father was embarrassed as his daughter had confessed that she was indeed pregnant.

4. Apps that can pinpoint smartphone photo locations

If you’ve taken a photography class with Mr. Malinger, you know about metadata, which is data that gives information about other data. All photos have metadata which can determine when and where they were taken. There are apps that can collect photos with geolocation information on the internet and individuals can track the geographical location of where a photo was taken in a matter of seconds just by downloading the image and checking the metadata. However, the good news is that many social media sites automatically detach location information from posted pictures.

5. Cell phone carriers have also tried to track you

In 2011, security researcher Trevor Eckhart revealed that AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile sold smartphones with Carrier IQ tracking software that collected geolocation (even when location services were disabled), all keystrokes inputed on the device, and website history. While Carrier IQ asserted that the software was meant to aid carriers track call drop areas and apps that caused performance issues, there was no opt out and no indication of the software in their privacy policy. Later, an FCC investigation discovered that Verizon was also using tracking software called “zombie cookies”. In 2012, Verizon took cookies a step further by inserting cookies into all unencrypted online traffic without users’ permission. But in May 2016, the company was fined $1.35 million by the FCC. Since then, carriers have eliminated such programs.

What do HBA students think about internet privacy?

A brief survey of the class of 2017 regarding internet privacy found that most of the respondents said that they cared about their online privacy. Here’s what a few students on both sides had to say:

Do you care about your internet privacy?

“Yes in that I believe that the internet is one of those basic human rights. We might not see it now but I think in the future it will become more apparent. It’s a new frontier in a sense—we have the physical world and now we have the virtual world—and since we are protected by laws in the physical world so we should be equally protected in the virtual world.” – Ryan Su

“Yes. You can tell a lot about a person from what they look up online. That could very easily let you know whether they’re gay or straight or whether they’re liberal or conservative. Even if a robot is collecting the data, there’s always a possibility a person can look at it, especially when you bring in the government. Allowing the government to know what every single person thinks and believes leads to dangerous things such as censorship. I don’t like to write a lot of my personal deep thoughts on the computer because I’m scared that these companies will be able to come in and take it, and use it. Even if now they don’t put my name on it, it’s always a possibility that they will. This can lead to them putting names on every bundle of information about every single person and I think that’s dangerous especially if the information is given to the government.” – Finnley Baraoidan

“When it comes to targeted advertising, however, it doesn’t seem to work. Yeah sure you see a product that you might have been searching for but you don’t have to click that link. It might seem creepy but people miss the point that it’s a robot that is collecting this information. Unlike a person, it’s not going to judge you for it and it’s not going to show you special interest. When people see targeted advertising, they think of it more as a stalker but it’s not like that. It’s just the result of a bunch of key terms and the robot collects the same amount of data between people. When you realize that it’s a large scale program that’s applied to everyone, it takes the personal infringement away from it. So they may have access to a lot of information but on a one to one scale, they don’t care about you.” – Ryan Su

“The reality of the situation is that companies do this anyway. They already sell your data. They’re going to break the law (regulations) either way. Nothing’s going to stop a company from finding a loophole.” – Anonymous

“First of all, I have nothing to hide. They’re selling your information because it’s marketing. I mean, it’s capitalism. What are you going to do about it? Secondly, my browsing history doesn’t tell them who I really am. Even though it seems kind of like an invasion of privacy, you still have free choice. Internet privacy is sort of important but it’s not that important as who you are. You can only predict so much but there’s also the likelihood that people can be different from the predictions.” – Caleb Noh

“When it comes to business, I think you should care. But as an ignorant little teenager that I am, all I do is shop online or go on Google Drive for school work. So if you want to know about writing English papers and buying clothes, then I’m fine with that. You know, hit me up clothing companies!” – Anonymous

What can you do?

For those who want to escape the watchful eye of corporations, many security experts recommend using a VPN—a virtual private network—to connect to the internet. When one connects via a VPN, the connection is encrypted thereby making observation by anyone outside of the system challenging. VPNs even protect users’ online activity from internet service providers.

While VPNs can help you hide from corporate radars, these services are not foolproof. In a CNN article on how to keep online data private, Kenneth White, an internet engineer and director of the Open Crypto Audit Project, says, “There is a long history of ‘free’ VPNs that prey on innocent consumers’ concerns about security and cynically make them less safe.” The article cites an incident in 2015 where a VPN provider hijacked their customers’ computers to hack other computer systems. Some VPNs, particularly those that are free, also have clauses in their privacy policy to allow them to track and sell users’ data to advertisers. Also, the use of a VPN will oftentimes slow down connection speed so the secure connection does come with a cost.

Although there is no perfect solution to complete internet privacy, many experts agree that the first step is to carefully select a VPN. Some suggest checking out Tor, a software that is supposed to protect your online browsing data and your location. The bottom line is that everyone should make an informed decision on how much or little they want to keep their online data private.

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