Defining data privacy
It’s easy to write off data privacy as someone else’s concern. Maybe it’s the word “data.” It’s an intangible concept, often represented by strings of ones and zeroes, that just doesn’t connect with most. Combine it with “privacy,” another concept that we usually associate with our physical presence, and it’s a recipe for confusion and apathy.
If you’re wondering how to understand data or information privacy, personalizing the concept can help. If someone asked you to define yourself, you might mention things like character traits, likes/dislikes, and relationships. How would you feel if you learned that somewhere out there, someone has packaged up all this info? And that they added to it all sorts of minutiae about your daily actions? And then rented it out to the highest bidder?
Maybe now you can see at least one reason why data privacy is important. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s take a deeper look.
What’s at stake and why is data privacy important
To say there’s some information floating out there would be understatement. A severe one. While surveillance state visions might come across as the stuff of dystopian science fiction, the tools to make it reality already exist.
Here’s just a sampling of the everyday info that could be falsely assumed to be private: visits to websites, Google searches, GPS coordinates, online and brick-and-mortar purchases, credit card applications, phone calls, and Facebook personality quizzes. Some, especially in isolation, might be benign, but unfortunately, one piece of the puzzle rarely sits alone.
The problem is that different bits of personal data are often aggregated to help build a profile. Even if you’re not a celebrity, this picture of you is a most valuable commodity. But to whom?
Who wants your data?
There are three primary players that stand to benefit from invading your data privacy:
- This class is broad, but they’re the ones most likely to buy and sell your info. On the selling side, it’s anyone who can gather information: social media networks, search engines, credit card companies, retailers, and the like.
- Who will pay for it? The most obvious is advertisers—anyone who can more effectively sell you something by knowing who you are. But oftentimes, the buyers are also the sellers. For instance, Facebook has long scooped up information from other places to enrich their profile of you, which they, in turn, can sell out to others.
- Let’s sidestep what our own government may want with your personal info. Not to ignore a very real threat, but they do already sit on a mountain of data—income, employment info, property—through the IRS. From a technological standpoint, other governments, in particular authoritarian regimes, are becoming a bigger and bigger threat as they spy not just on their own citizens, but other countries’ as well.
- While the jury’s still out on TikTok, it’s certainly not lacking in questionable behavior. Add to it their being subject to China’s National Intelligence Law, and there’s good reason to believe there are foreign governments interested in knowing what you do.
- One of the big mistakes people make when thinking about information privacy is that they aren’t worthy of being hacked. Why would anyone go to the trouble of hacking me? It’s true—the average person probably wouldn’t be directly targeted by a hacker. But a large health insurer, like Anthem, would be. And they have a treasure trove of sensitive info on their customers. In other words, you might not be the target, but someone that stores your info might.
- So what do hackers want with your info? If they’re targeting large companies, they’re generally trying to grab a database that can easily be sold off to the highest bidder. The buyers will then be looking to sell off that info in smaller chunks to people who, somewhere down the line, will sell off bits of info one by one. It may be shady business, but it’s still a business.
Why it’s important to protect your data privacy
So there’s a ton of personal data floating around, but what could actually happen? A lot. Here’s a taste:
Retargeting. Ever wonder how some ads seem to follow you around the web? Like when you check out a pair of shoes on one site, and ads for them pop up on other sites. That’s called retargeting. As creepy as it is, it’s one of the more mild invasions of data privacy.
Stalking. A Facebook engineer was fired in 2018 after allegedly using privileged access to stalk women. That is to say, if a service isn’t doing enough to vet employees and restrict access, your info and safety could be endangered.
Identity theft. All those credit cards and social security numbers up for sale on the dark web probably aren’t being purchased for harmless pranking. Combine a few critical pieces of personal information, and a bad actor can put you in a world of pain—financial or otherwise.
It’s alarming how much personal data is out there, and even more alarming how powerful it can be. But protecting your privacy online isn’t beyond your control. With a little preparation and a watchful eye, you can keep yourself safe.