What are the shoals and cliffs out there? And what are the 10 things you should remember to protect your privacy?

You are almost always online

You are now almost always online, for example when:

  • your cell phone or PC is turned on,
  • You’re on the phone, you’re surfing, you’re googling,
  • playing Fortnite with friends or just hanging out on Discord,
  • watching your favorite show on Netflix at home,
  • using one of the countless apps on your phone, or
  • just send an email in the traditional way.
  • Even cars, appliances, televisions, and sensors can be connected to the Internet all the time.

Okay, but why is being always online a problem?

The Internet and the current technologies and communication protocols (a very technical word 😉) behind it were not originally designed to protect users’ privacy. They were “invented” at a time when the initial goal was to enable easy exchange between a small number of scientists. Commercial abuse and cybercrime were unthinkable at that time.

In the past, designing new technologies and services to protect users’ privacy was seen as an annoying “add-on” rather than an ethical and legal imperative.

Startup founders and investors were, and are, generally concerned with the fastest possible global expansion. Every player we know today (e.g. Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, etc.) initially wanted to attract as many users as possible. Winner takes all.

Even worse, most of these technology providers have developed the software for their products in a way that deliberately invades our privacy. A lot of money is made from the data they collect. This is what we now call the surveillance economy. “Privacy policies” do little to help users protect their privacy and often make the Internet rather unusable.

That is why it is important that you learn the following 10 essential rules for your online life and keep them in mind at all times.

10 Essential Rules For Your Online Live

(1) We Leave Traces

Every search query, every email, every social media post, and every repost generates invisible additional data – called metadata – that can be digitally read, analyzed, and personally attributed to you.

Think for a moment about everything you have “googled” in your life. You probably can’t remember very much. But Google knows every one of your searches and can associate it with you. In many ways, Google knows you better than you know yourself.

(2) There is No Anonymity on the Internet

There is no such thing as anonymity on the Internet. Even a very careful cybersecurity expert would have a very hard time maintaining anonymity over a long period of time.

(3) Information is Valuable

Information about us is used for the benefit of others – even against us.

Many free Internet services and applications, such as Twitter, Google, Facebook, Amazon, credit cards, loyalty cards, make a profit by selling the information they collect about us. This applies both to information we intentionally publish (posts) and to the hidden parts of our information, the metadata mentioned above. Information is often combined by data dealers and law enforcement agencies from various sources and condensed into meaningful profiles.

(4) Someone is Always “Listening”

Communication over the Internet is never just between two parties – unless it is strongly encrypted.

Unencrypted transmission channels such as a phone call, an e-mail or a text message are comparable to a postcard that is transported from A to B via many computers and can be read by anyone. Depending on the law and the country, this “postcard” can be copied and sent to government investigators. This is called data retention without cause.

(5) Sharing (Posting) Means Loss of Control

Sharing information via a social network (such as Twitter, Facebook or YouTube) means that we give up control over that information – forever.

(6) Improved Search and Analysis Capabilities

Just because information cannot be attributed to us today does not mean it will not be possible tomorrow. For example, if images (from a public video camera) that show you could not be attributed to you today, it is conceivable that an improved algorithm will be able to do so tomorrow.

(7) Online is Real Life

Online activities are as much a part of our lives as our offline activities. They are interconnected and can affect our lives and relationships in the same way.

(8) The Authenticity of an Identity is Not Guaranteed.

Creating an online identity or pretending to be someone else is often just a matter of a few clicks. This means that you can never be completely sure who you are communicating with and that someone could steal your online identity and impersonate you!

(9) You Can’t Escape

You can’t avoid your online footprint by not going online. Three examples:

Someone accidentally takes a picture of you and posts it online on Instagram. Instagram (Facebook) recognizes that you are in the picture and associates you with it.
The surveillance camera at the train station already uses facial recognition and uses data from social media to classify you.
The cell phone in your pocket regularly “handshakes” with the accessible WLAN routers of the store operators as you stroll through a shopping mall.

(10) Privacy Makes Work

You are the only one interested in your privacy! At least until there is a basic right to “digital privacy and self-determination”.

Sources, Tips and Links For Further Reading

The above text is adapted from the Teaching Privacy Project and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License (CC-BY) by the International Computer Science Institute at Berkley.