Why Digital Privacy Matters

And What You Can Do About It


Via Pixabay

The Great of the Internet is always watching

It is a commonly repeated truism that the government and corporations are watching everything you do. At this point it seems everyone has heard at least one joke about their purchase history data being sold or their phone being monitored by the police. But how true are these assertions, and how does it all work?


The perhaps disappointing truth of the matter is that for the most part, these commonly repeated assertions are indeed true. The casual user of technology, who does not have the time, knowledge, or interest to pursue privacy is indeed under constant surveillance. However, taking steps to escape these watchful eyes is not as difficult as one might think.


The primary mode of surveillance of the average user of the internet is for the purpose of more accurate and effective advertising. When you visit websites, purchase products online, or engage in almost any online activity, an increasingly expansive profile of you is automatically collected. This data is then sold to advertisers in order to target their products more efficiently.


A classic example of this is the case of a pregnancy. Advertisers understand that there is little demand for baby products among those who do not have or are not expecting a baby. Therefore, they pay data collection companies, like google, to show their advertisements only to those who have been observed to be expecting mothers. Shopping for other baby products, reading and searching for articles related to pregnancy, or any manner of more obscure actions could be used to know that the expectant mothers are pregnant.


While shocking, to some it is difficult to see the true harm being caused. Many see themselves above the manipulation of advertisements, but this is simply not true. Advertisements are shown again and again to shape our thoughts and cultures, and the entire industry around them would not exist if it was not profitable to do so.


Such data is not only used to shape what products you buy and what you consume, it is used to shape the way that you think as well. Your data is not only sold to corporations, it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, sold to politicians and their campaigns.


Politicians will then use this data to target specific audiences with specific messages. Key demographics in elections are bombarded with messaging which consciously and unconsciously shifts the minds of their target audience, who can very well be you.


Furthering campaigns is sadly not the only way that the government can invade your privacy online, however. Laws such as the infamous Patriot Act give the federal government wide-reaching permissions to gather information on and survey anyone suspected of criminal activity, often no matter how loosely.


While the exact nature of how and how often the government spies on the public online is understandably not publicly available, leaks hitting headlines recently have certainly painted a dire picture.


Found on unsecure airline servers, a 2019 version of the TSA’s “no fly” list was leaked, and while a prominent event on its own, the hackers were shocked to find that the list contained 1.5 million names and addresses, suggesting that millions more were likely spied on as well and did not make the list.


Despite the disheartening pervasiveness of this online surveillance, there are still things you can do to keep yourself private:

  1. Take the extra time to opt out of any data gathering on websites and services. Businesses know that most consumers will take the path of least resistance and agree to have their data harvested for convenience. Take the extra time to find the setting to opt out of any data gathering.
  2. If possible, use a VPN or proxy. Data gathering companies often tie disconnected actions to a single person or household using their IP address. Using one of these services will allow you to change the address that they see and make it more difficult for them to compile accurate information.
  3. Elect representatives who take online privacy seriously and will pass laws to protect users from surveillance whether corporate or government. Check to see if your representative has a stance on digital privacy, and;
  4. Consider writing to them to express that the issue is important to you. Digital privacy does not have to be a partisan issue, and even if you are already set on your preferred candidate, if they believe supporting stronger protections for consumers or repealing government surveillance laws will increase their support, politicians will include it on their platforms.