Personal Privacy in the Digital Age

Personal privacy has become a complex topic in the digital age, with reverberations in every sphere of life from government and politics to healthcare and commerce. People spend an incredible amount of time online, and in doing so, generate the ability for others to learn a significant amount about them by tracking their digital activity and communications.

Such tracking occurs in spades, by everyone from our online service providers to shopping sites, news providers, and social media outlets. These organizations gather volumes of personal information behind the scenes, capturing our internet search terms, purchasing habits, and even IP location.

Beyond this data tracking that we don’t often consciously note, we are regularly prompted to provide personal information to execute transactions, browse certain sites, or share online. We ourselves even choose to add to this volume of digital information by proactively sharing our pictures, videos, and personal stories on a range of social media sites.

As a result, according to the Pew Institute, the majority of adults question the privacy and security of their personal information and their ability to maintain confidentiality when desired. The report comments, “When Americans are asked what comes to mind when they hear the word “privacy,” there are patterns to their answers. As the word cloud below illustrates, they give important weight to the idea that privacy applies to personal material—their space, their “stuff,” their solitude, and, importantly, their “rights.” Beyond the frequency of individual words, when responses are grouped into themes, the largest block of answers ties to concepts of security, safety, and protection.”Privacy Word Cloud - Pew
While storage and analysis of this data causes concern about civil liberties for some, there can be benefits to this collection of personal data. In this post, we examine how tracked data is utilized and talk about how to “opt out” if you desire. In our next post later in March, we’ll discuss scenarios where we actively share private information, and include some thoughts for clients around privacy in situations where they could be a data collector.

Privacy and the Utilization of Tracked Data

The volume and variety of data that is passively collected is redefining many aspects of commerce, as well as public and private life. Here are a few areas where this data is leveraged.

Public Policies: In the public sphere, the collection and analysis of big data offers interesting opportunities to improve social services. For example, reviewing thousands of files of patient data has helped to detect drug interactions, enabling healthcare providers to design better drug therapies and reduce costs. Law enforcement uses big data to identify crime-prone areas and increase police presence. And a Harvard study conducted after the cholera epidemic in Haiti in 2010 showed that analyzing Twitter data at the time would have enabled authorities to identify the outbreak two weeks sooner than they did.

Targeted Advertising: Targeted advertising refers to the practice of using information gathered from search and purchase data to serve up ads related to pages you have visited or items you have bought in the past. For example, you search for tickets to a sporting event and then receive ads for restaurants near the event venue. This method theoretically increases the relevance of the ads that you are exposed to, potentially highlighting products or services that would be beneficial to you. Such ads keep many services (e.g. Facebook, YouTube) free because the advertisers pay the expense. Whether you find the match delightful or disturbing, one downside of these “perfectly paired” ads is that consumers lose diversity of exposure.

Personalized Recommendations: Analyzing search and purchase habits also fuels the recommendation system provided by so many sites. Whether it be items “you may also be interested in” on Amazon, or suggested movies on Netflix, many sites leverage consumer data in this way. The benefit to consumers is the option to quickly reduce an overwhelming number of choices to a smaller set that theoretically is more matched to your interests.

Price Discrimination: On the flip side, search information can be used by companies to charge different prices to different consumers based on their past searches or purchases. By definition, price discrimination means that some people pay higher prices than others for the same item. However, it equally implies that some consumers pay a lower price. Proponents would also argue that such discrimination helps to increase product variety, enabling niche brands to sell products to people who can afford to buy them.

Opting Out of Data Tracking

According to research by the Pew foundation, Americans are much more concerned about protecting the privacy of information they share directly with companies or people (e.g. emails, texts, medical records) than they are about their searches and purchase habits.
Privacy - Sensitive Data
For those who desire to opt out of online data collection or targeted advertising, though, there are a number of things that can be done. The most basic is to set your browser to disable cookies. As this sometimes affects how a site functions, the alternate option is to periodically clear cookies and your browsing history. You can also use “incognito” windows that prevent your browser from saving your search history.

Both Google and Yahoo! make it easy to opt of interest-based marketing by adjusting your ad settings. This is likewise true for Facebook and Twitter. The Network Advertising Industry (NAI) also offers an opt-out tool that finds cookies on your computer and enables you to remove them, as well as block future cookies.

If you truly want to keep online information about yourself private, though, you also need to restrict what you choose to share on social media sites like Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Shutting off the ads doesn’t mean they are not crawling your posts for information about your desires. It’s also worth noting that, while email might feel like a private conversation, it’s also a digital conversation – meaning that data can be intercepted and read anywhere in transit, for a potentially infinite time, unless you encrypt the message. Nolo speaks to this topic in their legal encyclopedia.

While much data is collected by monitoring online activity, there is also a significant amount gathered directly with consumer consent. Later this month we’ll discuss some of these scenarios and how to safeguard your privacy there. Sign up for our email newsletter to be notified about the post. (And while we’re talking about privacy, we promise we won’t share your email with anyone else! You’ll just hear from us monthly with the latest in technology, mobility and app development.)