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Freedom, Community & Sustainability

Do we have privacy in a super-connected world and should we care?

December 7, 2011 -- William
Last modified on February 2017

There was a time when most people lived in small villages and everybody knew about everybody else. It was not a question of choice, you just happened to be known by all your peers and there was always someone to watch what you were up to. Then came big cities, individualism, privacy and other considerations that our ancestors didn't really have. Today you can easily spend years in one place without ever seeing your neighbours.

With the Internet we're at the same time anonymous behind our avatars but also exposed for having little control over our personal information. As a rule of thumb, everything that is in a digital form is potentially of public domain. If you happen to meet your neighbour, it's likely that you can find on the Internet things that he/she might not really be willing to share with you. Today, there is a real concern about controlling our online footprint, privacy settings and awareness about what part of us is made public. But should we really care about our online alter-ego?

If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear?

This might be true if you are being interrogated by the police in an isolated room but it's NOT true if you are being scrutinised by the whole world. We all know the problems famous people have with tabloids and paparazzi and the consequences it has in their lives. The point is that we don't need to have something to hide. There are things we want to keep private although they are not necessarily secret. Not many people would like to have their credit card numbers in a forum, recordings of their private phone calls available for download or their naked picture on a newspaper. On top of it all, things that seem a good idea today might not seem such a good idea in twenty years. Keep in mind that what you share today could still be stored in a computer in twenty years.

What do you really know about yourself?

If you never Googled yourself, do it right now. What you'll see is your digital footprint. This information is used to try to guess who you are. It is known as online vetting and today, it's a commonplace.
With the magic of Internet, this digital footprint is potentially available to 7 billion people. Keep in mind though that this tremendous exposure is very different from being famous. Not everybody in the world will start reading your blog or checking your social status everyday, but they can if they want to. By gathering bits and pieces of information here and there, it is possible to know a lot about someone.  The big online companies know things about you that you don't even suspect. They know it and care about it because this is what their business is about. You might be asking yourself now, why is this information so important?

How valuable is your privacy?

The information gathered on Internet is very important for companies to target their advertisement. This is how they make money. They read your messages, they track your queries, your location, your friends and they monetize it in a way or another. They do not care about you specifically but they care about knowing everything from everybody. Almost anything we do online is being exploited and there are many things that we are compelled to do online. How much of your privacy are you willing to trade to take advantage of the product they have to offer?
Not only trusted companies gather information about you. There is an incredible amount of people and bots online looking for exploitable data. The most common “harvesters” on Internet are spammers but who knows what else they are looking for?

Forget and forgive (should we deserve a second chance?)

Everybody makes mistakes and everybody has a chance to improve upon the experience gained. Although people might forget, the Internet doesn't. A picture or a video is much harder to forget than a memory, they remain unchanged over time and with them, the ability to forgive. If you read carefully, the privacy policy of many sites, including social networks, photo or video sharing services, blogs and so on, you will see that in most cases the things you upload become the property of these companies, or better said, they gain a license to use it as they see fit. Most of these companies are not going to reveal old deleted files just for fun and they certainly care about how customers will perceive a privacy threat. In a hundred years, nobody knows what Internet will look like and maybe these files will start to surface again for the good and for the bad. Can you imagine going to a museum of deleted profiles of the past century?

How does Free and Open Source Software relate to the issues of privacy?

The only way to know exactly what a software do is to read it's source code. The Freedom of FOSS also concerns privacy since you are able to understand how it works and ensure that it's not doing things you don't want it to. If you are not a programmer, no worries : if a source code is open, someone will read it.
Proprietary software is potentially spying everything you do with it, really, there is no way to know what information a proprietary software records and communicates. We all know that most software records legally (although might not ask your consent) some anonymous information about usage, crash reports, log files and so on. Up to here it might be ok if it's in the hands of good people, willing to help improve the quality of the software. What about the content of your e-mails, the content of your text documents, the things you type in a browser? Online services and “The Cloud” are even worse because your information is in the hands of a third party. If you trust this third party or not is one thing, but you are, for sure, losing control over your personal data.
Although there is no evidence of confidential information being gathered by these companies, there is no proof of the contrary either. With proprietary software and online services we can only hope that it never happens.

The world is changing and we are all adapting to it. I'm not going to make a value judgements about how good or how bad the new rules established by the Internet are. What really matters is how well prepared we are to live in a super-connected world and the first thing to do is to know what is this privacy debate about.

Read also:
The online privacy foundation
Privacy international
Cyber privacy project
Towards a free Network Services
Can FOSS save your privacy?

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