Since the birth of the internet, many netizens have made discussions without ever revealing their names and/or faces. Though this has its pros and cons, privacy, through anonymity, is an inert right we have been exercising long before big tech companies like Google and Facebook came stealing the scene.
One might think that being private-conscious in internet is a first-world problem (it isn’t). On the contrary, Big Tech companies are racing to exploit the developing countries. As smartphones become more accessible to more people, so too grows the coverage of spying eyes1. And something as personal as smartphone is a treasure trove of data ripe for the picking.
While this post isn’t exactly a step-by-step procedure on how to become as private as possible on the internet, it hopes to, at least, give the readers an idea on what Internet Privacy is, and why it matters, especially in developing countries.
According to Internet World Stats, more than half of the world population has access to the internet, and by sheer number, Asians constitute the majority of these internet users. That number will increase in the coming years, as internet becomes more widely available. That you are reading this likely means you have access to internet through your preferred device, unless this article is printed for offline, off-grid perusing.
We consume a lot of info per day. How does an average person distill all this into usable knowledge? How are we using all these hours spent on the internet?
In this information era, many of us can now access a cheap yet reliable computing device, mostly in the form of smartphone. Major telecoms offer free data for Facebook (and/or Instagram). This grants people access to a version of internet of questionable ethics. Facebook, as you may have heard a lot by now23456, doesn’t care about what its users think, despite Mark Zuckerberg saying7:
I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever.
How can we stay private and/or anonymous in the digital space?
One would even ask, “What do I care? I have nothing to hide.”
Edward Snowden couldn’t have said it better:
“If you think privacy is unimportant for you because you have nothing to hide, you might as well say free speech is unimportant for you because you have nothing useful to say.”
People tend to judge based on small fragments of truth they obtained online. In an ocean of information, it is reckless for someone to select partial truths to conform to the story they desire to tell.
Surveillance + Capitalism = ?
Major social networks, like Facebook, are free
because they to monetize our attention and personal information.
There are many ways they can do that. Some of it are:
- Advertisement: Companies pay social networks to place their ads on the platform. We’ve known it in traditional platforms like radio and TV, and now they’ve moved into our social lives.
- Personalized Ads: Unlike the previous one, these kinds of ads target you, using algorithms that attempt to make a profile out of your online behavior. You are tracked through your online habits—the articles you like, the posts you share, the items you (window-)shopped, and maybe even the words you speak around your smartphone8, etc.
- Data Buy-and-Sell: Social networking sites, and other big tech in and out of FAMANG, sell your data to third-party companies, with or without our consent.
Think for a moment: the most pressing issues of our times are buried in layers of personalized advertising and attention grabbing techniques. No wonder we’re distracted and all over the place!
In some places, surveillance is mandatory and state-sponsored.
Thanks to the implementation of its mass surveillance, Chinese government can track down Muslim minorities, like Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz, to control and monitor them9.
The Chinese government can also rank citizens with a social credit system, which, depending on where a person currently is in the ladder, could affect what services would be available to them. A bad social credit score could ban you from traveling by plane. These are definitely extreme examples that are, by the way, in place now enabled by State Surveillance.
The UKUSA Agreement is an agreement between the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand to cooperatively collect, analyze, and share intelligence. Members of this group, known as the Five Eyes, focus on gathering and analyzing intelligence from different parts of the world. While Five Eyes countries have agreed to not spy on each other as adversaries, leaks by Snowden have revealed that some Five Eyes members monitor each other’s citizens and share intelligence to avoid breaking domestic laws that prohibit them from spying on their own citizens. The Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK, USA) alliance also cooperates with groups of third-party countries to share intelligence (forming the Nine Eyes [Denmark, France, Netherlands, Norway] and Fourteen Eyes [Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden]), however Five Eyes and third-party countries can and do spy on each other.
We must be alarmed.
Don’t panic, though.
Learn about your threat model, i.e.:
- who you are running/hiding away from
- why are you running/hiding away from them
- how capable are they in locating you
- what are the tools that are available to you that can keep you from their surveillance
Consider this: You don’t want advertisers (the who) to bombard you with their tacky, sometimes un-skippable ads (the why). They could get your data from data brokers, or from when you click their ads in websites (the how). Good thing that there are reliable ad-blockers (the what) that can completely remove them from your sight.
In this example, we identify advertisers as the adversary. Such an adversary pales in comparison with authoritarian regimes that has complete control over a country’s flow of information.
In an ideal world, our every action isn’t under 24/7 surveillance; it wouldn’t need be. But ours is an imperfect one, and powers have risen to monitor the smallest details of what we do. What we could do now is to remain vigilant, watch those who watch us, and at the very least call them out if they make us uncomfortable. It will take a long time to dismantle the prevailing structures that enable this surveillance, but knowing about them is a good start.
Staying private in a world that demands attention can be hard to do. Cameras, microphones, and GPS are only few of the items that can capture moments in our lives. If one would trust a company with servers and strong cloud computing systems to store our personal information for us, how do we know they wouldn’t use our data to benefit them? Or hand them over to some third party for analysis? Or worse, use it against us?
The efficiency of these software services, though, relies on the information given to them by the end-users. The larger the database, the better the algorithm would be, the better the services. What, then, must be the compromise between Software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers and their consumers? Should we, the users, even seek such compromise?
The number of privacy-conscious people online increases. Many are realizing their right to own their data, and keeping and/or sharing it at their own discretion. They are starting to see how big tech companies are trying to “mine” as much data as they can. And yet, this population remains a tiny fraction compared with the ones whose personal data have been shared on the internet, willingly or otherwise.
Why do we need to be private?
The choice must be ours if and when we want to share what data we want to share. We also need to acknowledge that not everything we do, online or offline, is for the whole world to know about. There are just some things that we’d rather keep off from as many people as possible: the passphrase of your email; your passionate dating life; secret family recipes, etc. It’s highly likely that the things we do online do not constitute as crime, and yet privacy advocates demand for more private and secure designs in the programs and applications that connect us to the internet.
How to be private
One of the best ways to stay private on the internet is to actually limit your time there. This limits what Google and Facebook can hoard, although this doesn’t mean that they can’t make a profile out of your online habits. Have something to replace the digital consumption, a hobby outside the digital medium. Remove as many social media apps on your phone and/or on your life as you can. Retain only close friends and family in your social media circles.
Google has grown from their beginnings as a search engine. It’s understandable that many of the functions we require online can be efficiently performed by Google. So much so that “google” is synonymous to “look it up online.”
Google, though, has become more than just a powerful search engine. Google is also an advertising company.
Big brother, it turns out, not only watches you, he’s an advertiser as well. We may unknowingly have loved him as well.
As soon as you can, ditch Google, Facebook, and other big tech softwares you’re using regularly.
Look for replacements in PrivacyTools (https://www.privacytools.io) for your daily drivers, most of them are up to par,
if not better than Google anyway.
Convince your friends and family to do the same with you.
The Problem with Mobile Phones. (2018, October 30). Surveillance Self Defense. https://ssd.eff.org/en/module/problem-mobile-phones ↩︎
Research confirms Facebook’s influence on election | Penn State University. (2010, September 21). Penn State News. https://news.psu.edu/story/164594/2010/09/21/research/research-confirms-facebooks-influence-election ↩︎
Spangler, T. (2018, April 3). Facebook Under Fire: How Privacy Crisis Could Change Big Data Forever. Variety. https://variety.com/2018/digital/features/facebook-privacy-crisis-big-data-mark-zuckerberg-1202741394/ ↩︎
Chan, R. (2019, October 5). The Cambridge Analytica whistleblower explains how the firm used Facebook data to sway elections. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/cambridge-analytica-whistleblower-christopher-wylie-facebook-data-2019-10 ↩︎
Asif, S. (2020, May 22). Personal data of 12 million Facebook users exposed online. HackRead. https://www.hackread.com/12-million-facebook-user-data-exposed-online/ ↩︎
Associated Press in New York. (2021, April 5). Facebook data leak: details from 533 million users found on website for hackers. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/apr/03/500-million-facebook-users-website-hackers ↩︎
Zuckerberg, M. (n.d.). A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking. Facebook. Retrieved April 23, 2021, from https://www.facebook.com/notes/mark-zuckerberg/a-privacy-focused-vision-for-social-networking/10156700570096634/ ↩︎
Linder, C. (2020, July 29). How to Tell If Your Apps Are Spying on You. Popular Mechanics. https://www.popularmechanics.com/technology/apps/a33448364/how-tell-apps-spying-protect-privacy/ ↩︎
Grauer, Y. (2021, January 29). Revealed: Massive Chinese Police Database. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2021/01/29/china-uyghur-muslim-surveillance-police/ ↩︎