Privacy in the information age: How to protect your data

50 million people use the internet in Germany. 25 million use Facebook on a regular basis. With their friends worldwide, they upload half a billion pictures per day. Half a billion per day. And that's only pictures. Text-only messages not included.

Privacy online

It's in the interest of Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Apple, Google & Co to have so many messages and images uploaded. Active users mean bigger customer loyalty and usually more revenue. But what about the users? Are their interests safeguarded?

Today we are taking a look on how privacy works for the big platforms.


1st observation: You are seduced to give your data.

When you look around on Facebook you asked to complete your profile, see this sponsored post or like that site. Right next to that you find the faces and names of your friends. This is called social proof and is a mechanism to make you click, share and post.

It makes the impression as if we were to give our data to our friends. That is not the case. Actually we giving it to the company that owns the platform. This brings us to another observation.

2nd observation: You have to differentiate between privacy towards other users and services.

On pretty much every site you can set which information to share

  • publicly
  • with friends and their friends
  • only with friends
  • etc.

So much for privacy towards other users. There is no privacy setting that addresses the service you are using. No way of saying they shall not look at, use, process or pass on your data. This is (probably) part of their terms and conditions, but rather as an agreement to do all these things. You cannot change that setting for a particular case.

In addition there are institutions that access your data at the service (Apple/Facebook/Google/Microsoft/Twitter) or on its way to the service. Just like the NSA or GCHQ do. Almost 30% of the Germany think, that the NSA is only collection public data. But it doesn't. Intelligence services collect all data they can gather. Quasi per definition.

3rd observation: You are not the only one to give your data.

If the first two observations made you think »well, then I will share less of my data«, there is a bad surprise for you. Just because you don't share your data doesn't mean anyone else will do it. It does not even have to be on ill intend.

The cell phone example. You don't want to give away your phone number online or save the messages you send in the cloud. This is all for nothing if the one you are texting with does it.

The social network example: If you meet your friends and they post that you are with them in the park, your data is also given away. And who promises you that your link to that post is actually deleted, when you press delete.

These are just two examples in which others are giving away your data, even if you might have preferred to not do so.

Insights, problems and dangers

This brings us to the first and most important insight.

  1. When we upload data we are giving it into a black box. We don't know what will happen to it.

  2. We have to assume that we will not get information out of it, once it's inside.

  3. As a society we have to learn to handle data responsibly.

And this is probably going to take it's time. It's a big change. And therefore we need an open discussion (that has already started), scandals (check), and some time.

The problems are facing already. We call them big brother, glass citizen (a german expression) and economic espionage. Airbus, a place manufacturer, lost a billion dollar deal to Boeing in 1994 due to modern espionage.

Or stories like the one of hobby pilot Paul Chambers, who was so frustrated about the bad weather that he tweeted:

»Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!«

He was suspected to be a terrorist, arrested and charged. Sentenced to a 1,000-pound penalty and lost his job twice because of this story.

It is a good thing, that the internet is not extralegal. But somehow we now have to worry what to tweet, post and write online, 'cause it could return like a boomerang. If things like these become more common we seriously have to worry about freedom of speech.

Information used against us, is – even in the offline world – a common thing for us. But if this is fully automated over many years old unrepresentative amounts data, things become dangerous. Technically it's already possible.

Guidelines for handling personal data

But what can we do even today? Two things:

  1. Accept that some of your data is gone already. Part of that is probably your name, e-mail, address, phone number and some pictures, post and such. This is okay. No rebellion needed.

  2. You probably already had some personal guidelines you followed on what data to share and not to share. Work on these as you gather new information such as above. And knowledge the interests of your friends and other people you know.

I personally try to only give away data (on social networks) that I would share with any citizen of the world. This is hard, because where do you make the cut on each of these platforms.

It would be great, if a protected space emerged on the internet, where we could communicate safely just like in our homes. It takes a lot of technical effort to realize that nowadays.