By Joey Visco
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With the ever growing presence of the internet in our daily lives, more and more of our personal information has begun to make its way onto digital records. This paper takes a look at the increasing importance of every user’s digital footprint, what that information means for companies that are willing to sell it, and how individuals view their own privacy habits.
Ever since its introduction to the world, the internet has become an integral core in the lives of over 3 billion people across the globe. From social media to online banking and medical records, all the information we’ll ever need is right at our fingertips. And yet, we’re not the only ones who are privy to our own personal data. There are countless companies that see such information as a valuable commodity, resulting in a wide range of data broking firms that seek out and sell the information we think is being kept private. Thus, privacy as it pertains to the internet has become more important than ever, as its wide range of users need to take a much more involved role in the protection of their personal information.
The Digital Footprint
On the Internet, virtually every aspect of our lives is being recorded in a variety of formats; what websites we visit, what terms we search for, and even extremely personal details about ourselves. In recent years, this phenomenon has been referred to as our “digital footprint,” the mark that we leave on the internet as we browse it. Of course, the most obvious source of this kind of information is social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, where users willingly post data about themselves that they probably would not be comfortable with sharing anywhere else. Specifically, 91% of younger users are willing to share their real names, 60% their relationship status, 82% their birthday, 71% where they live and attend school, 53% their email address, and 20% their mobile phone number (Henley). Browsing one’s social media page for even a passing amount of time can give an intricately detailed look into their life and how they conduct themselves.
And yet, social media is not the only facet of the internet that is collecting data from its users. Even basic information, such as the websites we visit on a consistent basis and the terms we input into popular search engines such as Google, can be considered highly valuable data by advertisers (Sisk 101-105). For example, if a user is consistently searching for terms related to weight loss or dieting, ad networks can see that as the perfect opportunity to display targeted ads for weight loss programs or special diet food brands. For many people, this would seem like a fairly invasive look into their lives and habits. For others, it is a prime money-making opportunity.
With internet users sharing increasingly large amounts of personal information, many data broker agencies have formed in recent years in order to profit off of that trend by collecting and selling the data to other companies. Returning to the previous example, if a certain data broker was to have a large list of 100,000 users that are potentially seeking weight loss or dieting solutions based off of their internet usage, many companies would pay a lot of money for that information. The following infographic details more information about these sorts of brokers that profit off of users’ personal information:
An ongoing issue with these data brokers on the internet is the absolute lack of federal regulations on how they collect information and the amount they are permitted to take. Most would assume that, due to the Fourth Amendment, they are guaranteed to privacy in areas where they can reasonably expect it. However, due to the Third Party Doctrine, which removes a user’s right to privacy when they share information with a third party (such as Facebook), these data brokers are given free rein to access this data (Sisk 101-107). From that point onward, there are virtually no regulations or restrictions in place to limit how much data they take or sell. Given that the Third Party Doctrine was introduced for the collection of evidence in criminal cases, it’s obvious that the freedom it grants to data brokers is an unintended loophole in its application. Despite this, there’s been no attempts to introduce anything that would mitigate or regulate this effect. Unfortunately, the only way to keep personal information out of the hands of data brokers is to ensure it doesn’t end up on the internet in the first place.
Good Data Habits
Keeping important information off of the internet is a surprisingly difficult task, as virtually anything you do on it is going to be tracked or detailed in some way. Yet, there are a number of positive habits that users can take to help curb the amount of data that they reveal. The ultimate source of information for brokers is, of course, social media. In the search for the level of social interaction that these sites provide, users willingly share intimate information that be accessed by virtually anyone, even if their profiles are set to “private” (Khey & Zemmels). Even then, other users can potentially tag users in photos or mention them in posts, making attempts to limit personal information on these sites a Sisyphean task.
Outside of social media, information can still be collected through a user’s search history and cookies that they have accumulated over time. Cookies might be small bits of information saved by a website, such as your name or email address, but that data adds up. Even just knowing your email address can allow companies to trace any sites you’ve used it on right back to you. Given that, as in the infographic, only 59% of users clear their browsers of this data on a regular basis, it is still an incredible amount of information (Pew). While it may seem trivial, keeping your browser fresh of cookies or overly large search histories can do wonders to keep your internet habits from falling into the wrong hands. But even taking all of these steps might not help, as this privacy concern needs to be dealt with on a larger scale.
What Needs to be Done
The issue of privacy on the internet is everyone’s problem, as data brokers do not discriminate when taking and selling the intimate data of internet users. And yet, referring back to the infographic, 91% of surveyed users have not made any change to their browsing habits to curb this growing industry (Pew). Even worse, the lack of any regulations on these data brokers basically allows them to conduct their business however they see fit, at the expense of everyday internet users. To top it all off, there is no real reason for brokers to be transparent about their business, as many people aren’t even aware that they exist.
First, more internet users need to become aware of the consequences that their actions on the internet can have and who can be potentially observing their every move. Secondly, these users need to take steps to protect their own information, such as clearing cookies or using throwaway emails unrelated to their main one. Lastly, people need to start demanding action be taken to curb the uninhibited data collection industry and demand more transparency from those companies. We need to know how this information is being collected and where it will eventually end up. Until then, the internet is far from being a private place.
In conclusion, the ideal relationship between privacy and the internet is not even close to being realized, as users are too lax with their personal information and data brokers are too free to collect that information however they want. There’s a litany of reasons why this relationship needs to be changed as soon as possible, yet there’s been zero action from anywhere on the matter. Unfortunately, as more and more users begin to access the internet, their data is far from private just about anywhere on the web.
Henley, Jon. "Are Teenagers Really Careless About Online Privacy?" Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media Limited, 21 Oct. 2013. Web.
Laggui, Drexx D. "Digital Privacy vs. Public Security." Inquirer.net. The Inquirer, 11 Sept. 2016. Web
Richards, Neil. Intellectual Privacy : Rethinking Civil Liberties in the Digital Age. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. Print.
Schneier, Bruce. Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World. 1st ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2015. Print.
Sisk, Edward P. "Technical Difficulties: Protecting Privacy Rights in the Digital Age." New England Journal on Criminal & Civil Confinement 42.1 (2016): 101-19. Web.
Troni, Naomi. "Social Media Privacy: A Contradiction in Terms?" Forbes.com. Forbes, 24 Apr. 2012. Web.
Zemmels, David R., and David N. Khels. "Sharing of Digital Visual Media: Privacy Concerns and Trust Among Young People." American Journal of Criminal Justice 40.2 (2014): 285-302. Web.