Who controls your data online? Hint: it’s not you!

by Manal al-Sharif | Sep 13, 2022 | Business, Latest Posts

Big tech wants us to think we control our own data, but we don’t. Our relationship with technology begins with deceptions and lies, writes cyber security expert and human rights activist Manal al-Sharif.

Every day, living our busy lives, we are lulled into a false sense of security about our privacy. It happens almost every time we “agree to the terms and conditions”. When they tell us they don’t sell our data, read the fine print. They do. When they tell us that “if you have nothing to fear, then you have nothing to hide”, they lie. It’s time we exposed the lies and took back our digital agency.

Privacy is a fundamental human right and a precondition for exercising other rights. In 1948, the members of the United Nations declared privacy “an inalienable and universal human right.” In 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights stressed that privacy plays a central role in democracy, which makes it imperative for all members of society – not just those with power or wealth – to be aware of their rights.

What is online privacy?

With almost every aspect of our lives being digitised, our privacy is too. So you might hear techies refer to privacy as digital privacy, internet privacy, or the most common online privacy. Online privacy means how much of our personal, financial, and browsing data remains private when we are online, and sometimes when we are offline.

The collection of our data and every “breath we take” is facilitated by our connected world. It happens when we go online or when we carry our chatty mobile devices and smart gadgets. It happens when we connect or pass by WiFi access points and telecommunication towers. When we walk by facial recognition CCTV. When we use our rewards card to collect points. When we walk into a shop equipped with smart tech. All those activities are recorded and collected. It’s no longer the information we consciously share that is being collected. We share so much by merely being connected or passing by the myriad of excessive tech ‘access points’.

Why does Big Tech play down the importance of online privacy?

In the US and Europe alone, 178 trillion times a year, advertising companies share the personal data collected from users, according to the Irish Council of Civil Liberties (ICCL). The data is being shared with third-party companies worldwide including companies in Russia and China. This data is usually intimate profiling based on online and offline activities and behaviour. And we don’t have a say in when this data is sold. We don’t even get a cut from the profit.

If our personal data is not that important to be protected, why is the obsession with collecting every bit and byte of our data, including hiding microphones in the gadget that we buy, to protect us from the intruders in the physical world? It’s hard to accept that our data is not that valuable, that we should not worry about it, give it in return for convenience, and trust technologists because they just use it to give us customised service.

Privacy violations impact minorities and vulnerable groups of society even more. Privacy is a cost that only the well-off can pay, leaving traditionally marginalised groups an open target for surveillance, data harvesting and misuse.

And if we feel hopeless about our online privacy now, just imagine the collective harm these practices inflict on generations to come.

What can we do?

These are some basic steps we can take to minimise the privacy abuses when we go online:

  1. Spread awareness about practising our privacy rights and urging regulators to pass strong privacy laws.
  2. Use private-by-design technology and definitely boycott privacy violators. This can start with simple things such as a private internet browser or private search engines.
  3. Use the browser plug-in: “Terms of Service that I Didn’t Read” to understand privacy policies before accepting them.
  4. Use the opt-out options whenever in doubt, including the Do-Not-Call register.

For more information, click here.

But the real change will only come when regulators step up and pass strong privacy laws following the example of the EU’s GDPR and California’s CCPA.

We need to approach online privacy from a position of empowerment and agency and not fear or hopelessness. Informed people make informed decisions. Being aware is a precondition to being able to exercise our digital rights.

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Manal al-Sharif is an author, speaker, human rights activitist and a regular contributor to international media. She has written for the Time, the NY Times and Washington Post. Her Amazon bestseller memoir, Daring to Drive: a Saudi Woman's Awakening, is an intimate story of her life growing up in one of the most masculine societies in the world.

Manal is a cybersecurity expert and host of the tech4evil.com podcast that discusses the intersection of technology and human rights.

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