Your Privacy, Online. Should We Be Scared?

4 min read

Big tech is peering in to our living rooms, listening to our conversations and following us to the shops. Should we be scared?

If you were born sometime in the 1980s, chances are you grew up in a sandpit and a garden with your parents taking the odd picture of you on special occasions. And if you had any older siblings, chances are you had less time in front of the camera. The number of pictures taken decreased with each child.

The internet arrived somewhere around the juncture between primary and high school. The whole family gathered around to hear that dial-up tone which became the source of frustration as you tried in vain to log into ICQ and MSN Messenger after school (and after your parents went to bed). 

By the time we reached adulthood, banking and paying bills online was second nature. Facebook was a cool way of keeping in touch with people you didn’t see all the time (and of stalking potential dating prospects, obviously). 

We grew up with tech, thinking it was on our side. 

Then all of a sudden some things started happening that seemed a bit suss. Facebook advertising products we had talked about with a friend. We started to hear stories about Google tracking our activity (what do you mean my Instagram searches under my doona at 1am aren’t mine alone?) and about our phones watching our movements

They are listening

Just last week I was talking out loud about trying out the Adidas Ultraboosts for my next pair of running shoes, et voila. Five minutes later when I opened the ‘gram (I’d love to say five hours, but that would be stretching the truth…), there was the ad for those very shoes. 

It’s not just annoying and slightly creepy product placement either. It can be bad news for your emotional and mental health: think, women of childbearing age who may have miscarried or are working through fertility issues, who start getting ads for egg freezing or pregnancy tests.

Is it more creepy than spying?

There’s also this to consider: it might not just be purely that the data is being collected. And it’s not just Google. Other big firms are tracking our activity too. It might be analysed, based on the music we listen to, places we visit, sites we look at, accounts we follow, our consumption patterns and other data, building such a detailed profile of us, our habits, tastes, to actually predict what products and services we might be interested in and target ads accordingly. Which to me is a kind of late-capitalist hell that’s even more creepy than the spying. It wasn’t until I installed proper internet security software that I realised how often Google was trying to access my camera. 

It wasn’t until I installed proper internet security software that I realised how often Google was trying to access my camera. 

Data privacy scandals

We lost our collective minds when we heard Alexa might be creeping on our conversations.  But were we really that surprised? Should we have been? And did we care enough to boot her out of the house? While Mashable reckons we should chill out, pointing out Alexa was just doing her job when she sent a “private” conversation to a contact of the family, having interpreted prompts to do just that, I’m not sure I would trade off the convenience for the risk of Amazon listening in to what’s going on at home.  

There was also the FaceTime bug that allowed users to listen to or watch the person they were calling before the call was even answered. Group FaceTime was taken offline and the bug fixed in a subsequent software update. Still, not all that comforting. 

And those of us with children have no doubt had to grapple with the decision of whether to post pictures of our kids online. Their rights and consent to their personal privacy are one consideration, but bigger concerns include the idea Facebook might be using pictures to develop AI, or as The Conversation said: 

‘Parents shouldn’t be giving the impression that even those closest to them will exploit a young person’s data or identity. That will just prepare them for a lifetime of expecting to be bought and sold online as part of a large data set. If anything, parents should be giving their children the tools to protect themselves.’

Should we be worried?

So should we be worried? 

I’m the first to admit I’m not an expert in data. And I was pretty complacent about the idea that so much data was being collected about me. But when the Australian Federal Government rushed through data encryption legislation that meant police could force businesses to unscramble encrypted messages (ones only the sender and receiver can read) without us knowing. End result? Under this legislation law enforcement agencies might be able to see the memes we are sending to each other (hi!) and our group chats about The Bachelor. The bill is here, if you’re in to that kind of thing.  

If you wouldn’t want your grandma to know or see what you’re doing, don’t do it.

Applying some common sense to find a middle path seems like the way to go. The internet is copping a lot of flak right now, but remember, it’s given us a lot of good things. A good rule? If you wouldn’t want your grandma to know or see what you’re doing, don’t do it. Opting out entirely is both impractical and potentially socially isolating. Giving over seems like an easy option, but given once information (even if it is a few selfies, the places we visit, where we work, the music we listen to and what we’ll be buying next at Kmart) is in other people’s hands, we have lost control of it.

How do you feel about your data being collected and mined right under your nose? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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