Every day we are inundated with countless reports of constant and insidious total surveillance, and at every turn we are victims to the same, just as George Orwell pointed out a long time ago, albeit in an entertaining manner.
“Would life be better without the Internet?” – This is a question that has been raised in association with total surveillance in recent years. The automatic reaction to any scandal concerning the misuse of user data seems to be to immediately blame social media companies such as Facebook, Google etc, the greedy economy and of course the ever watchful U.S surveillance.
Social media: the desire for self-revelation
While people tended to communicate directly in the past, the Internet has now established itself as the primary means of communication for many people. For people all over the world, it has become commonplace to write an e-mail to a business partner, upload a photo from vacation or have a say on a red hot topic on Twitter. It is human nature to communicate and to reveal details about yourself (to varying degrees). However, unlike traditional conversations where people soon lose track of the details of their discussions, the Internet never forgets.
Is it really fair to blame social networks for enabling others to spy on people based on data that is freely available from these social networks? After all, it is the users themselves who detail every second of their lives in real-time and do so of their own accord. There is no need for specialized intelligence technology to extract location information from profile pictures, when a smartphone app provides it within the properties of the picture or the user manually adds these details themselves as a description.
Once published, it is virtually impossible to completely remove anything from the Internet. This is primarily the case because the Internet isn’t a one-way highway which runs from A to B, but an almost infinite network of computers and servers that are used to cache data packets on their journey to their destination. Anything that is posted on a social media profile has an even greater chance of rapid propagation through so-called “viral marketing”, the extremely efficient successor of the good old “word of mouth”.
What happens on the Internet stays on the Internet
Pattern-recognition algorithms attempt to detect unusual patterns in huge amounts of existing data in real-time. You may think you have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will appear innocent, as evidenced by numerous individual reports worldwide.
It is of little help that data privacy is declared a human right, if users are not even aware of the traces they leave behind on the Internet. The initiatives of individuals, such as German politician Malte Spitz, who filed a law suit over 6 months of his stored personal data, serve to raise awareness on how explosive the situation is. While surveillance and so-called data mining merely attempt to disclose “what content” we write, this case shows us quite plainly how much information is already contained in so-called meta data (“when”, “where”, “how often” we communicate and “with whom”).
Always treat your personal data with adequate care. “The Internet” can only distribute, store and analyze what it is fed via different sources. Whatever you choose to divulge over social media, remains for the most part, up to you. If your job requires you to have a presence on social media portals, the risk always remains that friends and acquaintances may reveal details about you and your life (not necessarily maliciously) or tag you in a photo from your last party.
NSA Prism starts as an electronic mass surveillance and data analysis project
Breaches in German Telekom’s security system enable unauthorized access to the account and personal data of over 30 million customers
Google changes its data privacy guidelines without telling anyone
Facebook forwards user data to advertising companies
Data breach at Sony: 24.6 million customers’ data stolen from Sony Online Entertainment
Schufa, the General Credit Protection Agency to end a project aiming, among others things, at making use of Facebook information to calculate credit-worthiness
NSA Prism requests access to the servers of different online platforms such as Google, Apple, and Facebook
Always pay attention to where you are surfing and what ads you click on, especially while logged into various portals. For instance, if you forget to log out of Facebook, Facebook plugins (that allow you to make comments on content) enable almost complete tracking of your activities on the Internet and associate this data with you directly as a person. Even after logging out, you have to trust that these plugins comply with data privacy agreements and don’t send your data to the network’s operator without your previous consent.
Do not rely exclusively on the encryption strength of messages (meta data will still remain visible!), that cloud or other online providers promise, or even on human rights. Even the use of anonymizing services, such as TOR, aren’t fool-proof according to recent revelations. The idea of keeping critical data on a separate computer without an Internet connection isn’t new either, however this isn’t feasible for the average Internet user, and moreover, it’s highly impractical given the popularity of smartphones.
The only way to be 100% certain that you do not publish personal information is by staying away from online portals or disconnecting from the Internet and remaining offline. Ultimately, we are responsible for the information we disclose about ourselves and how we handle the information of others. Just as we should explain to our loved ones how to handle search results or ad banners with care (keyword: malware), it is our duty to raise awareness on treating online and offline data with discretion.
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