As technology becomes more present in our lives with each passing day, each one of us should ask ourselves, exactly how much of our personal lives we allow to be digitalised, collected, stored and used for someone else’s purpose.
Only a small portion of the population is aware that governments and companies collect their personal information. Generally, personal information refers to a person’s name, age, appearance, ethnicity, religion, education, identification numbers, health, income, spending and purchases, bank accounts… All of this is sensitive information that is later used for a number of purposes. Whether it’s meant to track your location, advertise products appealing to you, statistics, or selling to a third party, everyone has the right not only to be aware of this, but also to control to what extent they want to expose themselves.
Data Privacy Day
Therefore, on January 28th, an annual event, called Data Privacy Day, is held. The purpose of this day is to raise awareness in the media and reach out to a larger mass of people, in order to educate them about the value of their privacy, as well as their right to maintain it.
Data Privacy Day is celebrated and supported by the government of Canada, USA, France, Germany, the UK and a lot of other European countries. Corporations and companies also give out their support to this cause and some of them are Microsoft, Intel, Mozilla, Verizon and IdentityGuard.
The aim of Data Privacy Day is to promote privacy for regular people as well as businesses, and offer them access to knowledge and various tools that will ultimately help them regain control over their personally identifiable information.
At this point, some of you may be wondering, what is this ‘exploitation of information’ that we keep going on about? The answer is a little more complex than you might have thought.
Each time you download an app on your smartphone, sign a waiver that allows a certain company access to your records, post on social networks, use the Internet and GPS or give out your email, address or phone number, you expose your information to a second party. How this party plans to use your information may or may not be stated in the terms and agreements. In some cases, all they need is your consent, even though you may not be entirely sure what you are giving your consent to. In other cases, this happens without your knowledge.
Sometimes companies offer free services, discounts or other conveniences in exchange for access to your data. For example, a store may offer a card that you can use to get discounts however in return, they will collect the list of products you buy from there. After this, they may use your information or sell it to other companies, in order to advertise product that you would be likely interested in.
Companies claim that your email address is completely private, but this is not always the truth. A company may allow third companies access to your email address that will later put you on their mailing list, also used for advertising purposes. This may seem like a harmlessly annoying practice, but there are some more extreme cases.
The information you post about yourself online can be used by other agencies to keep track of your location, habits and behavior. In fact, the police can use it to determine whether you are a threat or not. It can be used by other authorities, such as employers, to control you. Your browser history is constantly used to display advertisements suitable for you. Your insurance company can check your bank accounts and healthcare records to decide whether to insure you or not.
Sometimes, even if you consciously agree to give out your information to a company or agency, it can be exposed to theft and abuse by third parties. This comes down to their security system, online and offline. Before you grant access to your data, make sure that they have a reliable online security and effective shredding practices.
It is also possible that you fall victim to scammers and social engineers. Scammers use a variety of methods to get their hands on your identifiable data. Take caution when choosing a password, secure your computers and networks and look out for suspicious sites. Social engineers will usually falsely claim to work for a company or an individual and ask you for your info.
Before you give out your passwords or identification numbers, make sure the person is really who they claim to be.
A number of free tools and advice is available to the public, and here we will list some of the most useful ones.
1. Know your legal rights: When data is collected, the company or agency collecting it must act according to a data protection law. Inform yourself about the legislation in your country and make sure to what extent it protects your privacy. In most cases, the law should ensure that all data is collected with knowledge and consent of the individual. Furthermore, the information must be correct. The purpose for which the information will be used must be stated at the time of collection and it may not be used for any other purposes. Secure storage of the data must be ensured, as well as access for the individual to correct, delete and moderate the information.
2. Read the terms and agreements: Before signing a piece of paper, downloading an app on your phone or creating an account on a social network, make sure you are 100% aware of what you are agreeing to. Some apps demand access to your phone registry, camera, location, etc. Some social networks will want access to your location, conversations…
3. Download an antivirus: This is an obvious advice for all users of digital technology. Antiviruses not only protect your software, but also your privacy and identity. There is a number of free antiviruses you can choose from and even update to a premium version if necessary.
4. AdBlock: A browser extension that allows its users to block all unwanted advertisement from their most visited websites. Users can also whitelist their favorite websites. AdBlock is free and offers users the option to pay after downloading it.
5. WOT: Another browser extension that betters your online experience. It rates websites by their trustworthiness and safety, lets you rate your experience on a particular website and notifies you with a list of possible threats upon visiting a website.
Countries that spy — Do you live in one of them?
It’s no secret that there are countries, in which the governments freely access the citizen’s information and invade their private life, thus breaking the basic human right of privacy. Some of the countries on this list are the usual suspects, and some are quite unexpected.
USA: In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked information to a reporter about NSA’s telephony and Internet surveillance. There was a seemingly endless sea of evidence about the agency collecting and monitoring telephone calls information, communication traffic from companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Google, Yahoo, etc. NSA even developed a software tool that allows browsing through a system of emails, messages, browsing histories and calls.
Germany: A German newspaper published a report in which it is stated that German government agencies cooperated with the already notorious NSA, to collect and monitor data about German citizens.
New Zealand: After it was made public that the government had been illegally spying on its own citizens and collecting sensitive data, a new law was introduced that made these actions legal. Justification for this law, of course, lies in the safety of the citizens.
United Kingdom: Like Germany, the UK’s government has been involved with the NSA as well. In the reports that unraveled NSA’s surveillance schemes there was also proof that Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters was cooperating with NSA to copy data from Yahoo and Google.
China: It’s been known for a while now that China continuously spies on its own citizens. As a matter of fact, China has developed one of the world’s biggest digital empires. ‘The Great Firewall of China’, as they call it, is a group of tools and programs used to control and collect the information on the Internet.
Russia: During the Sochi Olympic Games, Russia installed a surveillance system, whose purpose was to spy on the foreign contestants, as well as visitors. The primary function of this system, however, was to spy on the opposition back in the 80’s.
Bahrain: The monarchy uses software developed by a UK company to spy on the opposition. The opposition activists receive an email about a seemingly urgent subject and when they open the email, a hidden software is downloaded, that later allows the government to intercept emails and Skype calls. The same software has been reported to be used by Vietnam.
In the end, it’s only safe to say that our privacy as individuals is vulnerable to those who wish to exploit the knowledge. To some it’s a tolerable nuisance and to others it’s only a beginning of a problem of much bigger proportions. Nevertheless, we must know that the right to one’s privacy is crucial and without it, we cannot exercise our basic rights of freedom of thought, speech and freedom to assemble and move.