Privacy on the Internet: An Illusion

Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash

So you think you have privacy on the Internet? So did I. In reality, privacy on the Internet is purely an illusion. It doesn’t really exist. While we hide behind our screens, our every move is being recorded and tracked.

Now, we all already knew that some of our information was public. We use social media and deliberately give the Internet access to our thoughts, photos, and lives, but what happens if they access even the information for which we did not provide access to?

According to a New York Times article, Facebook records all your activity, without you even realizing it. It tracks what you like, who you’re friends with, where you’ve been and builds a data profile of you, which it can later sell to different buyers, such as advertisers. An article from Spanish newspaper, El País, explains that Facebook can even build a profile about you and your interests solely based on your friends, without you even opening a Facebook account.

But its not just Facebook. Google has access to almost all of your information and can also access your webcam and microphone whenever they want (The Guardian). Every single Google search you have made is recorded, tracked and used to make a profile for advertisers to cater ads to you based on your interests.

As part of my course, Fundamentals of Computer Science, we were asked to look for the data Google has recorded on our profiles. The results were impressive but unsettling.

Firstly, all of my searches were there. Every video, image or article I had searched for was displayed. I then went to my Google Ad Personalization settings and there I discovered the profile that Google created for advertisers to cater to me. Google knows I’m a 18-24 year old female that is into films, music, reading and foreign language studies. They even knew some information that I have never displayed on any Google searches but I suppose with my browsing patterns, they predicted.

After doing a check-up on what Google knows about me, my professor asked us to try the Google add-on Disconnect. This add-on blocks foreign websites from accessing your data when you are browsing the Internet. It also allows you to see which websites are soliciting your data. After installing it, I visited two websites that I visit regularly and discovered that by visiting those websites I was automatically sharing my data. Disconnect showed me that approximately 12 websites wanted my data when visiting each of them. Websites such as Facebook and Quantserve (which I then discovered is the second biggest name in data tracking) wanted my data.

Finding out about all of this information, has made browsing the internet scary. I sometimes feel like I need to be careful with which websites I visit and with what I do on the Internet so that it wont be used to influence or manipulate me. This reminds me of Glenn Greenwald’s Ted Talk on Why Privacy Matters.

In his Ted Talk, Greenwald analyzes how we, as humans, have become accustomed and are sometimes even willing to be monitored. He explains why we should care about our privacy, even if we are not guilty of any illicit activities.

“There are thousands of psychological studies that prove that when somebody knows they are being watched, the behavior they engage in is vastly more conformist and compliant… People, when they are being watched, make decisions that are not the byproduct of their own agency but that are of the expectations that others have of them or the mandates of societal orthodoxy” says Greenwald.

There is no freedom under surveillance. The Internet has opened so many doors and shown us commodities that we might’ve never thought possible. But what good is it worth if freedom and choice are an illusion? We must demand privacy or at least take action to exercise our privacy in any way we can. Our lives and choices are not for profit or exhibition.

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