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 The National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) has expanded the annual Data Privacy Day campaign into Data Privacy Week. It is an international effort to promote awareness among businesses and individuals regarding the importance of protecting personal information.

Privacy – What’s the Big Deal?

“The power to forecast and influence derived from personal data is the quintessential kind of power in the digital age.” Carissa Véliz

“Privacy is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data” by Carissa Véliz warns that privacy is a collective issue with dangerous long-term implications. She asserts that personal data is toxic, and the battle for privacy is a struggle for power.

Your data is a commodity, and companies are amassing money and power by accumulating and storing it. Surveillance capitalism is built on the collection, storage, and analysis of data for profit. It primarily funds the Internet with the intention of predicting and influencing behaviors.

Data brokers provide personal data in exchange for money; however, information is also traded in exchange for favorable treatment - for example, a social media company sharing its clients’ contact information to enhance the tools of another company. Data brokers claim that the vast quantity of information being collected has been anonymized yet much of it can be de-anonymized by matching it against public information. Research indicates that 87% of Americans can be identified with three data elements: zip code, birth date, and gender. 

Many people do not hesitate to share private information on social media or in exchange for “free” services like loyalty shopping cards. The more data acquired by big tech, the greater the ability to train algorithms that work on correlations and make bits of information, which appear to be insignificant, highly predictive.

The capacity to control data and the ability to anticipate behavior creates opportunities to sell that influence to others including governments. Personal information is used to create microtargeted ads that expose people to different and potentially contradictory information, which is used to categorize and capitalize on our differences. Equality is undermined by treating everyone differently, and people are essentially exposed to conflicting versions of reality.

Behavior is manipulated by exploiting personality traits to tell people what they want and need to hear. For example, personalized political ads, which tend to cater to extremes, provide various visions to different constituents. Being exposed to dramatically diverse content discourages healthy debate. If everyone saw the same ads, it would facilitate fact checking, discussions, and reaching conclusions. In addition, personalized information is being used to seduce people to incessantly scroll, play mindless games, and ultimately rob them of time.

Véliz states privacy is not just a personal preference and people may be vulnerable in ways they’ve not considered. She cautions that even when information is collected innocently without nefarious intentions or is provided with informed consent, there is no way of knowing how it may be used in the future. In addition, when you expose yourself, you may be exposing others. Some examples provided by Véliz:

·         Genetic testing: information extends to family members including future generations.

·         Social media tag suggestions: when identities are confirmed, privacy information is given to big tech for free.

·         Post-death: the data trail left behind may continue to impact family members and descendants.

·         A foreign government hack to cause social unrest, influence elections, undermine democracy.

·         Based on the idea of creditworthiness, China has collaborated with tech companies to design and refine a social credit system where every piece of data on every citizen will be used to rate people on a trustworthiness scale. 

If you’re interested in further exploring how privacy is being used by governments and corporations in their quest for power along with advice for taking back control, Véliz’s book is a compelling read.   

Actions You Can Take from the NCSA

·         Understand the Tradeoffs Between Privacy and Convenience: Make informed decisions about sharing data and weigh it against the benefits. Be wary of apps or services that require access to information that is not required or relevant for the services offered. Delete unused apps and keep software current.

·         Manage Your Privacy Settings: Check the privacy and security settings on Internet services and apps to ensure they are set to your comfort level. Visit the NCSA’s Manage Your Privacy Settings page to find out where to view or change your settings on popular devices and online services.

·         Protect Your Data: Keep your data secure by creating long, unique passwords and storing them in a password manager. Add another layer of security by enabling multi-factor authentication (MFA) whenever possible.


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