There are too many tools and services available that protect your information on the internet to say that finding a level of privacy is anyone’s responsibility but your own. It’s easy to complain about how websites are tracking you and serving you specifically targeted ads, but this is mostly your own fault.
You Give Every Website Consent To Track You
You can’t complain about how Google is tracking your location if you’ve openly allowed Google to do so.
Even a model in which people must actively opt-in to sharing their data isn’t enough, as users have already been conditioned to click “accept” or “allow” on many apps or websites. People should have privacy by default and not have to sort through complex privacy settings to enable it.
Your Privacy is Your Responsibility
Data is extremely useful to internet companies. The more data that a website has about you, the more they can target their content to fit your needs and interests. Because there is so much to gain from collecting user data, there aren’t many internet companies that are willing to skip tracking. You should basically assume that the internet is a giant funnel for collecting your information, public and private. If you’re using the internet, you should have no expectation of privacy whatsoever. It is your responsibility to take the proper steps to keep the sites you visit from collecting the information you’d like to keep private. It’s not always a simple process, but there are a few steps that everyone should take to prevent private data from leaking.
What Does Online Privacy Look Like?
Privacy, especially online privacy, basically means that you have control over when your information, and which of that information, is released. The problem is that by just visiting many websites, they are collecting your information without you explicitly opting in. Essentially just by going to the website, you’ve lost your privacy. There are ways though that you can protect your identity from leaking as soon as you visit a website. If you use a VPN, use ad and tracker blockers, and don’t log in to the websites you visit, you can minimize your data footprint. The websites won’t be able to see your IP address, location, name, and email address with these tools in place.
Privacy is Different for Everyone
The stakes of having privacy online are much different for each person. If you are a government official discussing sensitive topics, it’s vital that these communications remain private and secure. However, if you are a “normal” person and use the internet on a limited basis the implications of your behavioral data leaking could be minimal. Deciding what level of privacy you need should be based on the impacts of someone gaining access to all of your internet data.
Using Threat Models for Internet Privacy
ProtonMail’s explanation of a threat model says you should start by answering these questions:
- What information do you want to protect?
- Who might want to gain access to that information?
- Where is that information stored and transferred?
It’s much easier to protect yourself if you consider these questions. You’ll know which information is the most important to keep private, so you can use the best method for protecting that data. Also, consider who would want to gain access to that information. The privacy measures you choose will be different if you’re trying to protect your identity from your family member rather than internet advertisers. Consider where you’re storing your sensitive information and if it’s especially sensitive you don’t want to use any internet-based file storage service. Just connecting to the internet brings on other privacy risks.
Internet Privacy Laws
Internet privacy laws in the United States have been under intense scrutiny lately following large scale data breaches and privacy violations from large internet corporations. Many of the laws currently in place were put in place long before the age of social media and smartphones, so there is a strong argument for completely revamping these laws.
Those in favor of internet freedom are also in favor of laws that protect individual privacy rights. These people are concerned with the level of surveillance from internet advertisers and government agencies and the resulting privacy infringements that have become so common on the internet.
Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)
Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA)
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act made it illegal to access and share protected information. This act was originally passed in the late 1980s and then revised in the 1990s. While this act plays an important role in discouraging hackers from stealing information, reformers deemed the act far too restrictive.
Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA)
This law passed in 1986 and is still in effect today. The purpose of the ECPA is to restrict government wiretaps of phone calls and other electronic data transmissions via computer. There is some concern about legislation like this one that governs technology today, when there is no way the law’s creators could have anticipated the current technological landscape.
You don’t have to be a tech genius to protect your privacy on the internet. There are plenty of seemingly minor steps that will let you use the internet more privately and more securely. These are a few low-tech steps you can take to protect your private data online.
Low-Tech Ways to Protect Your Privacy Online
- Don’t post personally identifying details on public sites.
- Use alternative, privacy-based search engines like Search Encrypt, StartPage or DuckDuckGo.
- Disable location services on your phone if you don’t need it.
- Organize and advocate for consumer privacy and to end mass surveillance.
- Put a sticky note, sticker or tape over your computer’s camera to prevent hackers from watching you.
- Avoid cloud-based file storage or other tools that store your files and data online.
- Change your settings to minimize tracking technology.
“Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.” -Bruce Schneier, The Value of Privacy
Read More: The Best Internet Privacy Tools for 2019
The Internet’s Data Collection Model
Today’s internet is funded and driven by data collection and tracking. Most internet publications are funded by advertising revenue. Most of these ads are served by Google’s advertising network. For websites to maximize advertising revenue, Google and the sites themselves have to determine who their visitors are and what they’re interested in. Without information about visitors and their characteristics, ad revenue dwindles and internet publications must either change their business model or shut down.
Alternatives to Advertising-Based Business
Many of the privacy issues that we find on the internet stem from the idea that websites need as much information as possible about their visitors to serve them relevant ads or to sell that data to third parties. However, there are other business models that create a more privacy-focused, user-friendly internet ecosystem.
Rather than collecting revenue from advertising platforms, some websites have opted to use a subscription-based model. Some websites use a “freemium” model, which means that users are allowed to view a portion of the site’s content or a certain number of articles, and beyond that are required to pay a subscription fee. Other websites put all of their content behind paywalls so that anyone who wants to view the content must pay to view it.
Other websites have decided to skip traditional display advertising on their sites and have decided to share advertising or marketing content from other companies. Usually, these posts or pieces of content match the rest of the content on the website but the company that it promotes pays the website a fee for posting the article. This can be a much more effective method for certain companies because the content provides more value to readers and people are less turned off by the feeling of being sold.
Another way that websites make money is through affiliate marketing. Affiliate marketing is when the website posts about certain products or topics and then gives readers links to those products. The link will usually have an “affiliate tag” built in that lets the seller know where those shoppers are coming from and if they make a sale the website that refers them will get a percentage of the sale. This method of monetization applies to almost all niches on the internet and is widely used. If a website is already promoting products and services, affiliate marketing can be a great way to monetize users without relying on privacy-intrusive data collection.