Written by Karthik Sundar 

Cambridge Analytica’s utilization of data in the Brexit and Trump campaigns was shockingly effective. Through an app called “thisismydigitallife” developed by Aleksandr Kogan (a Russian-American academic at Cambridge), Cambridge Analytica gained access to the Facebook profiles of 87 million people. With 2.2 billion monthly active users, opting out of Facebook is not a viable option for most users. This, despite the risk of having our data, turned into psychographic profiles. We can’t be expected to live our lives without a credit card, an email ID, or a Facebook account. Yet, all is not gloomy.  What we can do, is train ourselves to understand what aspects of our online lives are at risk and how to protect them.

“Private” Online Lives

Awareness about online privacy is dismal amongst the majority of internet users. This is particularly dangerous considering the presence of a variety of companies, applications, political parties, and hackers that exist solely to collect, analyse or using our online activity. The poster-boy for the entire data leak scandal, Facebook is perhaps the most important application/company to understand. The full extent of what Facebook knows about each of us ranges from our birthdays to political preferences and preferences of Nike over Adidas. Through monitoring the areas we log-in, the friends we make and the news stories we click, Facebook compiles a thorough psychographic profile that they, as well as third parties, then use to suggest targeted advertisements.

It isn’t just Facebook of course. Narendra Modi’s “NAMO” app had been found to release user’s personal data (email, gender, name and photographs) to a mobile marketing solution provider called CleverTap, without consent. Post the expose, the application has surreptitiously changed its privacy policy.  Though it may seem insignificant, this information is a goldmine for various third-party operations. A paper published in 2000 by Latanya Sweeney (Director of the Data Privacy Lab at IQSS, Harvard), showed that through simple demographics (ZIP, gender, age), close to 90% of the United States population can be uniquely identified.

Okay, So Now What?

Before we download any application or subscribe to any service, going through the privacy policy is a must, lest we risk unwittingly divulging information. According to a Guardian survey, only 17% of people actually understand the terms and conditions that companies use. Not all of us are committed to going through 1000-word agreements before using a service, but there is scope for protecting oneself. For starters, the “Terms of Service: Didn’t Read” plugin allows users to understand the fine print behind lengthy terms of service documents frequently seen in app downloads.

Laborious as it may seem, ensuring our digital privacy is becoming an urgent necessity. When it comes to Facebook, there are a plethora of guides which detail the various measures required to make sure your account stays private. Simple controls like turning off public sharing to more complex ones like customizing individual application’s privacy and advertising settings can help build impermeable walls which serve to protect our online life.

A large number of applications and services also use encryptions. For instance, WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption service ensures that messages can only be accessed by authorized parties those are intended to see the message. Turning on these encryption services protects users from hackers or anyone else trying to intercept the data.

Each application and service also has permissions that sometimes allow them to track our information and location. Reviewing our permission services is a simple way to restrict our privacy from being compromised.

Privacy Badger and Ghostery The Bastion
Plugins block tracking cookies that companies use to map our browsing habits. Installing ones such as Privacy Badger and Ghostery protect our browsing history from being used for any company’s marketing and targeting strategies.

Perhaps the simplest thing we can employ to protect our data is to stop reusing passwords for each online account. To double down, Two-Factor Authentication layers the electronic wall and increases account privacy. It requires not just a username and password but also something unique that a user has on them, such as a physical token (a key fob for instance).

Something discussed in hushed tones of university dormitories, the “Deep Web” is one of the most extreme routes to online anonymity. The Tor Browser employs several thousand relay networks which conceal a user’s location and usage from any surveillance. While it may sound extremely appealing, using these browsers can be incredibly dangerous and leads to large-scale hacking threats if used lightly.  

With the world becoming increasingly connected, our privacy has been increasingly compromised. The online world is far from the anonymous paradise we once thought it was, what with companies, applications and hackers all actively trying to access our data for ulterior gains. As consumers who cannot survive without these services (at least for the near future), we can play our own part in retaining our own digital privacy.

Featured image by EFF | CC BY 2.0

Kartik Sundar
Kartik Sundar Author, The Bastion Staff

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