With the exponential increase in the use of digital technology, more and more private information is being stored online, leaving the issue of digital privacy to become one of paramount importance.
Today, people use the internet for several purposes, including online banking, making payments, sending emails, messaging friends, and maintaining a social media presence on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
With so much personal data available electronically, online privacy is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Simply using a website will activate cookies which automatically provide analytical profiling data to advertisers.
Hackers, with criminal intent, can access sensitive data to use for identity theft or fraudulent activity. Meanwhile, government agencies have extensive access to online information and could abuse their position of power under the auspices of monitoring security threats.
Threats to digital privacy
Companies which provide analytical data to third parties can easily monitor web users’ online personas. These are composed of their browsing history, interests, and site preferences. This information is gathered and sold to advertisers, election campaigners, and any other interested parties.
Misuse of the information by these third parties is illegal, but can occur. For example, advertisers backed by political entities can target specific voters in certain areas with misinformation, hoping to influence elections.
This problem occurs when data has been gathered on false premises. People have agreed to allow access to personal data for academic research purposes, only to find out subsequently that it was actually used for political campaigning.
Criminals target online data for use in financial scamming. Personal details can be used for identity theft, and bank card information can be stolen to make fraudulent purchases. Hackers can access sites with large numbers of customer data, where even government departments are targeted.
Governments themselves can present the biggest threat to digital privacy. Government agencies have the power to monitor the vast majority of online activity. Such surveillance is supposedly undertaken to detect and avert potential terrorist attacks or to disrupt organized crime.
However, in countries where there is no freedom of speech, this surveillance can be used to detect any anti-regime sentiment, pro-democracy movements, or expressions of political dissent.
Since private companies already possess the capacity to identify and analyze an individual’s online footprint, it is logical to conclude that government agencies would have, at the very least, a similar capability and most probably much more potential for far reaching implications.
Addressing digital privacy
Elimination of these threats is an ongoing battle and a very costly one when regulations are introduced.
In Europe, legislation known as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) imposes 45 rules on data reliant companies. Compliance with this law could cost U.S. companies wanting to trade online in Europe up to $150 billion, and thus acts as a strong deterrent to such trading.
In Europe, the prospect of hiring 75,000 new data protection professionals may be necessary, while regulatory authorities have doubled staff and budgets for compliance work.
Technology-led methods of reducing the threats to digital privacy would appear to be more cost effective than simply introducing burdensome and expensive regulations. Ongoing research is required to develop global, market-based solutions to simplify rather than complicate the issues.
The use of Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) can increase anonymity online, but it is not perfect. Innovation is required to develop private servers, better encryption, data minimization, anonymization, and privacy programs.
Another important issue is that of consumer education and freedom of choice. Creating trust online is dependent on the user’s level of knowledge about what transaction they are undertaking and any alternatives available to them. Individuals have a responsibility to educate themselves about the online services they use.
Attempting to limit government collection and use of sensitive personal data is very difficult. There would often need to be an element of trust which is unfortunately impossible in many instances. Activists should lobby governments in order to promote transparency over internet monitoring and data collection.
Websites should not be legally compelled to share information with the government or any other third party. Hacking private conversations online should be treated in exactly the same way as the wiretapping of telephone conversations.
In reality and practice, these issues present a significant problem, but in order to promote individual freedom and free markets, market-based solutions are necessary to prevent the ‘surrendering the internet to government control.’
Why digital privacy matters to SFL
At Students For Liberty, we believe that individuals have a right to privacy and ownership of their online data. Market solutions remain the only effective means to address the issue of data privacy, without damaging free trade and economic development. Governments should not monopolize and regulate the internet.