Privacy is hard to define. Political theorists, philosophers, and legal scholars have written libraries on what privacy means. But in a nutshell, privacy relates to the idea that everyone has a right to a private sphere of life where one can interfere without permission. In a way, privacy is having to knock on the door to enter someone else’s home.
Digital privacy is the same idea applied to the digital domain. You have a right to a private sphere, even in your digital life. Data within this sphere pertain to you, and there are limits to what other people can do with them.
But enforcing these limits is difficult. You have control of your home because you hold the keys to the door. The digital world is different. Actions such as joining a social network, googling the closest Japanese restaurant, or using a dating app all leave your data in the hands of other people and under their control. Having your data corrected or erased might be hard or impossible. In fact, it is often difficult to even figure out who exactly has your data and what they are doing with it. You have a private sphere on the Internet, but you don’t hold its keys.
This is why we need data protection laws. The law makes up for your lack of control over your digital private sphere. It limits what governments and other entities can do with your data and allows you to take legal action when these limits are violated.
- Why is digital privacy important?
- What is happening in digital privacy?
- New privacy challenges
- How to protect your digital privacy
- Privacy is a political issue
- So what is the solution?
- Why do we care?
Why is digital privacy important?
We live in an interconnected world. The Internet has permeated countless aspects of our lives. We shop on Amazon, navigate unfamiliar cities with Google Maps, and keep in touch with Whatsapp. We use social networks to connect with people, comment on how adorable their cats are, and argue with strangers. In doing so, we generate enormous amounts of personal data over which we have no direct control.
Companies soon realized that data was (and still is) immensely profitable. In fact, the development of Web 2.0 went hand-in-hand with the increasing monetization of personal data. Targeted advertising, the profiling of users on a massive scale, and the sale of data to third parties and data brokers are all ways for companies to make money from your digital life. Your data is a commodity, and companies will do anything to get it.
The Internet is becoming more invasive each day, which is why digital privacy matters more than ever.
What is happening in digital privacy?
Digital privacy has been moving fast in the last few years. The GDPR came into force in 2018, laying a solid foundation for the European Data Protection Framework. Member States then adapted their national legislations to the Regulation, and European and national privacy authorities published many guidelines, opinions, and clarifications on how to process data in compliance with the GDPR. Between the GDPR, its national implementations, and the ever-growing body of guidance from privacy authorities, digital privacy is now a densely regulated field in Europe.
Developments are not limited to the EU and the EEA. On the other side of the ocean, the US Congress is working on the first federal privacy law (ADPPA). In the meantime, several US Member States adopted privacy bills of their own- including California, home to the tech giants of Silicon Valley. Other major economies have adopted comprehensive privacy laws (or are currently drafting them) to address new privacy issues better. In part, this is due to the example set by the GDPR.
Governments are finally realizing the importance of digital privacy, and privacy legislation is flourishing globally. But digital privacy is also facing new challenges as well.
New privacy challenges
Take for example, the introduction of AI and, more specifically, chatGPT. AI raises privacy, accountability, and fairness issues that concern everyone. AI can cause or reinforce unfair discrimination when employed by companies or governments. Even publicly available chatbots can be jailbroken to reveal personal data or to behave in unintended and harmful ways. No wonder ethical AI is a hot topic right now.
Other technologies also raise difficult questions. Who controls the data in a blockchain? Does the notion of controlling data even make sense in this context? And what degree of control do users have over their own data when a blockchain makes it impossible to remove any past exchange of information between nodes?
Not all privacy issues arise from technological progress; political issues are also at play. Intelligence agencies worldwide are employing electronic surveillance in increasingly aggressive ways, and most governments are not terribly keen to tackle the issue. And, of course, at a policy level, there are difficult choices to be made between protecting privacy and pursuing other important aims, such as preventing terrorism and serious crimes.
Bottom line, digital privacy is more urgent, complex, and exciting than ever, and this is a great time to dive into it.
How to protect your digital privacy
If you care about your digital privacy, you can try and minimize your digital footprint. Switching to privacy-friendly services is a good place to start. There are plenty of free and paid alternatives to popular services, such as those listed here.
Social networks should be the first to go. You cannot be present on Facebook or TikTok and preserve your privacy. Even if you use a fake profile, these apps will still collect much data about your device and behavior.
Browsers are very important when it comes to privacy. Some, such as Firefox and Brave come with solid built-in options to block cookies and make fingerprinting harder. Tor performs very well against fingerprinting, although it sacrifices some functionality for the sake of privacy. You can check out this interesting piece for more information on browser privacy.
Beware of Chrome and Chromium in general. Google developed Chrome, and that is all you need to know. Other Chromium-based browsers do better privacy-wise thanks to solid ad-blocking plug-ins. However, Chromium will switch to Manifest v3 at some point in the future. Manifest v3 is a controversial extension manifest that will limit the capabilities of all extensions on Chromium browsers, including ad-blockers. So Chromium-based browsers are not a good bet in the long run (Brave is the exception because its ad-blocking technologies are a core part of the program and don’t depend on plug-ins).
When it comes to minimizing your fingerprint, relying on a VPN might be tempting- except that not all VPNs are as privacy-friendly as they claim. The network sees all your traffic, and you cannot know how long the data is stored and what the provider does with them. If you want to go the extra mile, relying on a Virtual Private Server is probably better.
Privacy is a political issue
Minimizing your digital footprint is good, but at the end of the day, there is only so much you can do individually. You can unplug from social media, restrict yourself to privacy-friendly services, use a VPS, and generally try to keep your digital footprint to a minimum. But eventually, you must mail someone on their Gmail account or text them on Whatsapp. Even opening a bank account leaves traces in the digital environment. And your home is on Google Maps whether you like it or not. Unless you head for the woods and embrace the survivalist life, you will leave a digital footprint.
So what is the solution?
As a consumer, you have some influence through your buying power. You can choose to support privacy-friendly services and avoid privacy-invasive ones whenever possible. But this is not enough. There is too much money to be made by exploiting data. And giants like Meta and Google are in a dominant position where they face little or no competition. Market pressure alone won’t keep the biggest players in line.
All in all, the best you can do is being privacy-aware and spread awareness of privacy issues. The general public and the media are more privacy-aware than ever, and as the trend continues, privacy-invasive companies have more and more to lose in terms of public image.
Privacy-aware citizens also know their rights better and are more likely to enforce them. This is how most privacy cases come to the attention of courts and authorities, and the more it happens, the better.
This is also the reason the work of advocacy groups (such as the privacy NGOs in the European Digital Rights network) is also very important. They work hard to spread awareness, and if your digital privacy was violated, some of them might be willing to take up the case or give helpful advice.
Finally, if you or your company processes personal data, you can limit the processing of the data to what is necessary: don’t collect data you don’t need, don’t store them for any longer than needed, and don’t disclose them to third parties unless you have a very good reason to do so, and trust them to handle the data responsibly.
In other words, you can try not to be part of the data-grabbing machine as much as reasonably possible and embrace a data minimization mindset instead. This won’t change the world and the Internet overnight, but it helps. It can also be a sound business decision, as we explained in another blog
Why do we care?
At Simple Analytics, we believe in an independent internet that is friendly to website visitors. This is the reason we built Simple Analytics in the first place. A privacy-friendly alternative to Google Analytics without the tracking bullshit. You can still see what’s hapenning on your website without cookies or collecting personal data. If this resonates with you, feel free to give us a try!