Data Protection and Privacy: Everyone Knows Everything About You

It’s fascinating (and horrifying) how much our social interaction online has changed. In 1993, the New Yorker published its famous cartoon “On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re a Dog”. Now 20 years later, while the joke is still somewhat relevant, many of us are also facing another challenge: on the Internet, you can’t even hide the identity of your dog. Everyone knows everything about you. As we enjoy the convenience of our “second life” online, we are also voluntarily putting out our personal information, sharing our most intimate moment, our likes and tastes as a consumer, and in some cases, our entire relationship history. For most of us, before we even fully understand the situation, it’s already too late to put a stop on it. Once the information is out on the Internet, it’s almost unretractable.

Early on, as we started building our online existence, our relationships with ISPs are largely based on “trust.” But the more we learn about how they use our personal information, the less we trust. Now we’re no longer excited to see a sidebar advertisement of something we “happened” to like, knowing Google’s selling our searching history. A lot of us use location service on a daily basis, for example, posting photos on Instagram with the exact location tagged, but we also know by doing this we’re basically drawing a map of our whereabouts for anyone to track.  Now we “trust” big companies with our personal information not because we’re still same naive, but because we have developed a reliance on the technology that is hard to walk away.

Another issue is the “consent approach” many ISPs are using to manage our personal information. By integrating a privacy statement into their long and complicated terms of use, they swiftly transferred some of the responsibilities to protect personal data to users. After all, you are the one who didn’t read and comprehend every word before hitting the magical “agree” button that makes all the concerns disappear. But really, who would read though that 20-pages document filled with legal jargon? As a result, in order to create a profile in 3 minutes (as ISP often promises), most people would just blindly agree to the terms and start using the service without knowing all the consequences.

Even when we’re vaguely aware of the privacy policy, are we really informed or matured enough to make that commitment? How do we protect the Minors? Last month, Facebook loosen their privacy control for teenagers, allowing them to post things for everyone to see. This is without a doubt a big boost for Facebook’s advertisement, but how would they make sure this kind of openness won’t turn Facebook into another playground for child sexual predators like Myspace?

The issue of data protection (especially those associated with national security) is becoming more and more prominent in government’s policy-making agenda. Kahin Nesson’s article Borders in Cyberspace outlines nations’ recent effort in using techniques like encryption for data protection. However, personal privacy is still largely controlled by ISPs. Like other Internet issues, data protection and privacy is certainly something that affects everyone. But unfortunately, when facing privacy concerns, the only actual power we have as a user is to click “not agree” and terminate the service, which is not the most efficient solution. In his book Code and Other Laws, Lawrence Lessig explains that in cyberspace behavior is regulated by four constraints: Law, Norms, Market and Architecture. In order to make sure these four constraints function, it is important to have a mechanism that takes in opinions from all the stakeholders – state legislator, ISPs, civil society, and most importantly, online users like you and me.

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