Protection or Privacy

How about neither

by Saifiyah Zaki, Staff Writer

Every time someone uses an electronic device, they hand over information. Most people are so used to it; they never stop to think what even the smallest action could be giving away about them. In typing a text, their favorite greeting pops up on the prediction bar. Their keyboard knows how they speak, their email and passwords, and what they talk about the most. Many people hand over all this information willingly, in return for the convenience of not having to type things out. Unfortunately, this exchange is not worth the convenience and makes people much more vulnerable than they know. Data on the internet is not safe, and people’s privacy has been invaded on countless occasions.

Perhaps the most invasive of all is the United States government. In 2013, the National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor Edward Snowden leaked information regarding government surveillance programs that citizens were completely unaware of. Among the many things that violated the Fourth Amendment were the government’s efforts to bypass encryption protecting personal data flowing through the internet. Rather than attempting to crack the encryption, the NSA sought to circumvent the algorithms by requiring companies to install backdoors, hack into servers and computers, or promote the use of weaker algorithms. All of this was done in the name of protection but instead made data more vulnerable. Data flowing through the internet was now not as strongly protected as before. If the government can gain access to it, then any hacker can.

Government agencies have struggled to gain access to citizens’ private information, yet most Americans readily entrust companies with anything they ask for. Take Google, for example. Google offers many different services, from web searches to online museums. All of these applications and services require an account with which they associate all the information collected during use. The information collected is meant to make the user’s experience much more personalized and convenient, which most users are accustomed to, but also allows the company to learn more about the user than they may ever have intended. Google’s personalized search feature is now standard for every search made using the engine. This feature uses past searches to determine patterns and infer the context of inquiries, which seems harmless and, as the company claims, is necessary for fast and relevant results. Yet it allows the algorithm to learn each user’s interests, locations they want to visit or have visited, their habits, their schedule, and even how they think. Google knows more about people than their closest friends and family, and that isn’t worth the convenience of relevant results.

Historically, despite promises to protect such information, many different companies have been subject to data breaches. One of the most prominent breaches was the 2014 Yahoo! email hack that compromised 500 million accounts, all of which included telephone numbers, dates of birth, security questions and answers and passwords. More recently, in July of last year the credit reporting agency Equifax discovered a breach that affected as many as 145 million customers in the United States. Hackers were able to retrieve full names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, some driver’s license numbers and about 209,000 credit card numbers. Both of these breaches disclose more than enough information for various crimes including identity fraud, credit card fraud and robberies. Clearly, private information is not as secure as promised by these companies.

Many people argue that events such as the aforementioned data breaches are irregularities and that most data on the internet is still secure. Whether the trade-off between convenience and privacy is worth it may be a personal opinion, but sharing information always makes people more vulnerable. What you give out on the internet can always be retrieved, no matter how difficult it is to access. Many people don’t even know the full extent of the information they are giving up, which is why internet laws need to be amended. People should be able to opt-in to giving up their data and receive a clear list of what information they are allowing the service to collect that isn’t buried in the terms and services. People should also be able to use services and applications without giving up their information or be able to choose what pieces of information to give to the service.

Going into the future, it’s important that we reserve the right to privacy. Technology is advancing exponentially; soon enough, machines could be living in our heads, hearing our thoughts. If that time comes, privacy must be more valued than ever before, which cannot happen if it isn’t respected today.