Privacy protects us. How can we protect it?
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Privacy protects us. How can we protect it?

Written by Pranav Chakkarwar on 10 Jan 2021 • 10 minutes to read

I will try to keep this article beginner-friendly but also try not to miss any important points. If you feel something is missing or something’s not right, feel free to leave a comment. I’ve also written an article on improving your privacy online.

Whatsapp updated its privacy policy and people, scared about their data, are now switching apps to protect their data. But, do we understand what are we trying to protect? Let’s explore why is Your data so important to other people.

But first, we need to understand the difference between privacy & security concerning the apps and software that we use.

Security defines the ability of the software to defend against a hacker or malware or other kinds of attacks that target an individual or a group of individuals. Whereas privacy is about someone’s right to keep their matters and relationships secret. In this case we almost upload all our information on social media sites and other online accounts. The company storing it can protect your data from others but who will protect your personal and valuable information against the company using your data. ^0^

We often read the biggest tech giants mentioning how secure their app or service is but it’s seldom that someone states how private our data is when we use their service.

What is data?

There are two terms when referring to our data (other categorizations may not be important for normies).

  1. Personal Data
  2. Meta Data

Let us understand these with an example. Whenever we use an app to send or store messages, images, the image itself is the PERSONAL DATA. Whereas data like, the size of the image, pixels of the image, which device was used to send the image, who sent the image, who received the image, etc. is classified as METADATA. As Wikipedia says: Metadata is “data that provides information about other data.”

The problem with Whatsapp!

Whatsapp claims to use end to end encryption based on the signal protocol but the source code of Whatsapp is closed source so we can never know the implementation of end to end encryption within Whatsapp. When using Whatsapp the only option is to trust Facebook’s word.

Assuming we trust Facebook to not read our messages (personal data), but the metadata that it collects is extensive enough to not use WhatsApp in the first place. To know what data is collected by Whatsapp, read their Privacy Policy

Why is privacy important?

TLDR: Privacy is important because information is power!

They say “You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide”. It’s true because your age, height, color, beliefs, location are not the things that people should judge us upon (At least in an perfect world). But, tech gaints want to collect more and more data to show us targeted ads that are operated by machines like the one you are reading this article on. The real challenge here is to teach the machines the nature of bias. The more THEY fail at doing so, the more WE fail.

Privacy is not only a technical issue but a philosophical one. Years along we fought wars just for the control over power and wealth. At some point, we decided to stop to let some individual or a group of individuals have the power to control and manipulate everyone else and decided to distribute the power (maybe unevenly) among the people. But to enforce such democratic policies people were given the right to let people have private conversations, thoughts, and free will. With the rise of internet monopolies, it is getting harder and harder to regulate the power and manipulation that some group of individuals can have on the rest of us. Privacy protects freedom but only if we protect privacy! RIGHT?

Here is a speech of Marco Rubio describing their problems which at some point will become everyone’s problem as we get more integrated with the digital world. Video credits - CNN.

Understanding the importance of DATA

  1. Why and who collects our data?
  2. How is our data collected?
  3. Why and who allows the collection of our data?
  4. Who benefits from our data?
  5. What can we do?

Who collects our data and why?

Almost all the services that are FREE relies on our valuable data. A common phrase that you may have heard.

If a product seems free to use, you are the product.

There are endless free services like photo editors, audio clippers, file format converters, Email services, messaging services, cloud storage services. We have been using these for years without realizing that your data is the product that is being sold and used by other people. To clearly understand data collection we will take a look at the companies that collect large amounts of data from where ever they can (Google and Facebook). Both the companies embrace the collection of data and they justify the collection of data by improving the products and services that they provide. These companies will not sell our data, Why? you ask! Because they are the ones who are capable of processing, understanding, and generating revenue from an immense amount of data. Smaller companies and even physical stores that collect your data will sell your data to these tech giants to compensate for the data they couldn’t collect.

How is our data collected?

To understand how our data is collected we will take a look at methods deployed by Facebook and Google to collect our data. First of all, Facebook will collect and store all the data that we generate or upload on Facebook and companies owned by Facebook. E.g. Instagram. Facebook and Google both provide tools for people to measure the traffic to their website, which are Facebook Pixel and Google Analytics. Google Analytics is used by 84.1% of all websites for which the traffic analysis tool is known.

This is 53.6% of all websites in the world.

Just imagine the amount of data that is generated and processed by these companies. Whenever we visit a website that uses these google and Facebook trackers install a cookie in your browser that will help them track us and identify us, even on other websites, and map most of our browsing history. Similarly android and ios apps also have a tracking code that will track you. Facebook will track everything you can imagine and everything you can’t imagine. The data collected is valuable for serving ads but It becomes more valuable when the collected data is linked to an identifier like Device ID, Phone number, IP Address, Bank details. While we can change our IP Address or other details but it becomes difficult when we are being tracked by Devices, Phone numbers and particularly bank details! So It’s very important that we protect our identity against the collected data. But that’s a topic for another article.

Why and who allows the collection of our data?

The law of the state in which you live allows the collection of our data. The amount of data collected by a company varies from state to state due to differences in local laws. The European Union actively questions companies on their practices of data collection and introduces regulations to protect the data of their citizens. One such regulation is GDPR - The General Data Protection Regulation 2016/679. The governments around the world claim to provide us security by analyzing the data generated to keep their state sound and secure. So the government introduces regulations that require these companies to hand over the data. At this point, I remember a quote from the web series MR ROBOT.

You are trading your dignity for your safety.

But has all of this actually made a difference? Find out by watching Kurzgesagt’s video on Safe and Sorry – Terrorism & Mass Surveillance

Who benefits from our data?

Facebook acquired Whatsapp, Instagram to hold almost the entire social media network, and collect more data to analyze user trends and habits. But, if a single company can predict our behavior based on what we see and how we interact with our devices, they can gain huge insights into our life, even when we are offline while earning huge amounts of money by showing you targeted advertisements. So the policies of these companies are designed in ways that will benefit the commercial interests of the advertisers. And as mentioned earlier, governments demand data from companies to analyze risks against their country/state. So, long story short collection of data will not stop due to various reasons. But we gotta decide how much and what type of data is collected and how is the collected data used.

What can we do?

First of all, we should educate ourselves on why is privacy important. A rule of thumb is to use services that claim and explain how they protect our privacy. The second thing to look for is a company whose codebase is OPEN SOURCE and is preferably audited by a third party. Thirdly you can look at the complexity of the privacy policy. Some companies have pages and pages describing how the collected data is protected. But, the good ones always have a short and simple policy stating that no data or minimum amount of data is collected and the user (us) either needs to pay for the service or the company lives with the help of donations from loyal users. In the end, some data will always be collected but the reason to do so must align with our constitution and beliefs.

My other article on improving your online privacy.

If you think you learned something new, share this article with your friends to spread the word!



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