April 26, 2021

How Much Control Have We Given Up Just to Enjoy the Digital Life?

digital life and data privacy

We all enjoy life in the digital age and the Internet provides us connectivity, efficiency and fun. By submitting some of our personal data into online interfaces, we enjoy significant benefits in the form of services tailored to our needs; from banking to work, ecommerce, transport, dating, social media and everything in between. But, by using our personal information, and sometimes posting it in the public domain, we have created a problem. Who owns this personal data once it leaves your keyboard? And if it is misused, who is the negligent party? It might be you.

A day in the life of data: Just how much information do you give away?

Before the development of computer databases, we had certain expectations about privacy and accepted a certain level of public disclosure of personal information. And it seems this statement still rings true. Americans say they care deeply about protecting their data. Pew Research found that being in control of who can get information about us is “very important” to 74% of Americans. However, when it comes to online, a lot of people do not consider data privacy as an important issue. The irony!

With the advent of social media and messaging platforms we offer information about our personal life freely and voluntarily on a daily basis – and we rarely realize or question it. We regularly post personal (and sometimes compromising) pictures. We share our current location (and indicate where we are not!). We share our relationship status, where we went to school, where we live, work history, birth dates, phone numbers – the list goes on.

And we don’t even stop to think about it. We are too busy reaping the benefits.

“In general, there has never been so much personal information about individuals as readily accessible as there is today with the Internet,” says Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and business ethics at Wharton. “However, what most of us fail to recognize is that once content is posted online, it can be difficult to maintain total control over where it is eventually used, shared, or modified.”

Personal or private – data is open to misuse

Many consumers are unaware how their data is used or by whom. They operate with an assumption of trust. But data is regularly leveraged in ways the consumer never imagined. The data a user scatters can be harvested and analyzed to reveal a wide variety of personal attributes that, while seemingly innocuous by themselves, can add up to form a skeleton key that social engineers can use to unlock real personal assets or corporate secrets. Shopping habits, political affiliation, relationship status etc., can all be used as steps in the ladder of a cybercrime.

Adding a sad face to a post about stray dogs, for example, can reveal what charities you might support. “You may not say much about your salary, but your ‘likes’ on brands or restaurants say a lot. Your daily routines and whereabouts can be deduced from your posts – especially if they’re geo-tagged,” says Maria Fasli, Director of the Institute for Analytics and Data Science, University of Essex.

And when it comes to email and messaging services, most of us blindly accept that this information is private. But privacy and the internet don’t go hand in hand. Just who, other than the intended recipient, will receive or have access to the information you provided? Will it be shared with other parties? Is it at risk of being used in ways you did not consent to?

Anita L. Allen, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania and a leading expert on privacy issues, says the core questions raised by misuse of the Internet are not new. “It goes way back to the general problem that people will use personal information that they can collect through surreptitious or open means to advance their interest at our expense. What is new is the ease with which information can be collected and shared, and the ease with which it can be maintained for indefinite periods of time.” So, if we know our online data, both private or professional, can be misused, who is the negligent party? Are you to blame? The more fundamental question is not whether you own your personal data. The real question is whether or not you can control your personal data once it’s out there.

Who owns your personal data and who controls your personal data?

There are definitely blurred lines when it comes to data ownership – and negligence. If you post your social security number online, it’s pretty clear that if something bad happens, you are the negligent party. But when it comes to other personal data shared or communicated, it’s not so black and white.

Way back in the 2006, Kevin Werbach, who already was concerned about data ownership when using third parties, stated, “There’s a difference between putting information on a purely public site, like your own website that’s accessible to anyone in the world, and putting something on a site like Facebook, which is a controlled, private site available only to its members,” Werbach notes. “The question of who owns the information on these sites is a very interesting one. Most have policies saying they have ownership of anything posted there, but clearly that doesn’t give them leeway to do anything they want with that information. And they have privacy policies that impose limits on how they can use that data. But there’s no simple answer as to whether the information belongs to me or to the site.” And that was more than a decade ago.

Personal Data Security: How can we better protect ourselves?

In the early days of eCommerce, it was common for some people to have misgivings about entering their credit card into a website. What has taken a bit more time to emerge, however, is awareness of the Internet’s increasing threat to personal privacy.

Today, the technologies behind websites that collect data have become very sophisticated. But this is a little like when cars first made an appearance. People stepped into these hulking, loud and very fast fun machines and there was absence of speed limits, seatbelts, and not even a thought of an air bag. It took many tragedies to change laws and promote the development of safety technologies to keep us safe. When it comes to the Internet, we are basically speeding down the highway, standing in the bed of a pick-up truck. It has been fun, but now is the time to start thinking about the parameters that will keep us safe. We are in need of digital seat belts and air bags to help minimize risk and misuse of our personal data.

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