The Erosion of Privacy

Privacy issues are becoming more prevalent as technology improves. This is not a new problem:

Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.”

“The Right to Privacy” – Warren and Brandeis 1890

Our personal data is strewn across the internet and it is being used for so many things we are completely unaware of. Whether the intentions are good or bad, companies and criminals have access to a lot more information about you than you realize. You can be as careful as you want, but you can still be tracked and identified, and most likely have several personas based on you in databases across the globe. 

We are tracked so many different ways it is almost impossible to avoid it. Cookies, social networks, pictures, credit cards, names, birthdays, addresses, zip codes, browsers, and hardware/software information are only a few ways we can be tracked. Even if you are careful, these companies can find enough data to discover your name, work, hobbies, interests, family, friends, browsing habits, and vices. This data is used for more than just finding an ad to display you that your likely to click on (Google Ads), they can affect your real life.

Take for instance this scary story about how Target was able to discover that this girl was pregnant before her parents even knew just by analyzing her spending habits. Not to mention what could happen if this data fell into the hands of real criminals.

Some people think that running your browser in private or incognito mode will protect you from this kind of tracking. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

From Google Chrome’s Website:

“Browsing in incognito mode only keeps Google Chrome from storing information about the websites you’ve visited. The websites you visit may still have records of your visit.”

When you visit a website your computer or mobile device needs to make an HTTP request to the server to get the data needed to display the web page. In this request (called the header) is your IP address and browser information among other things. From this data you can still be roughly pinpointed on a map and tracked by this unique identifier. This sparked a movement in 2009 to enable a DO NOT TRACK option, where if the user doesn’t want to be tracked they can include this in their HTTP request. However, there are no laws or technological requirements enforcing it’s compliance, so many websites just ignore the request and track you anyways.

There is no reasonable way to escape these privacy issues. New privacy laws are in the works to help protect consumers in several countries and internationally.

There seems to be a dilemma where fighting these privacy issues can somewhat protect you but drastically affects your experience and ability to use the internet efficiently and effectively. I can’t help but be reminded of the paradox of technology from “The Design of Everyday Things”.

“The same technology that simplifies life by providing more functions… also complicates life…”

– Donald Norman

The erosion of privacy in our society isn’t a new trend and I feel human kind will be forced to adapt, rather than than the other way around.

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