On the Internet There's No Such Thing as Privacy

There’s a slide that appears in every E2BN e-safety presentation. It’s a simple message. It reads “On the Internet: there’s no such thing as privacy, there’s no delete button so post like your enemies are watching!”

This article looks at the first part of that message. Privacy: a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people; the state of being free from public attention.

Imagine if every book you read reported that you had read it, how long you looked at it, which bits you re-read and what you read next. You can learn a lot about someone based on what they read! This is what happens online. Cookies on web sites track your browsing habits and web servers store this data. If you combine browsing habits and some bits of personal data quite a detailed picture or profile will emerge.


Marketing companies use this data to populate your web pages with targeted marketing. Marketeers say that this data is kept private and only viewed in aggregated form but a cookie can collect so much data. The more data you have and the more it can be correlated, the less it is possible to completely anonymize it. Social network interactions are stored. Every post, tweet and ‘Like’, every friend, follower and everyone you follow are logged against your account. Every web page with a Like button (whether you click it or not) reports to Facebook that you visited the page! The Facebook Likes that you do click can be used to infer your sexual orientation, voting habits, gender, race, religious allegiances and even intelligence.

Not in the obvious way where ‘Liking’ Ed Milliband might suggest that you’re going to vote Labour. A predilection for seemingly innocuous things such as curly fries and thunderstorms provide, with a surprisingly degree of accuracy, information about how intelligent you are! Now imagine if every book you read reported on who you had told about the book. That is what happens when you tweet a URL. What you notice about tweeted URLs is that Twitter shortens the URL. What you don’t see is that Twitter also arranges that anyone clicking on the URL will be tracked. So when you send a tweet to alert your colleagues to a useful education website Twitter is reading over your shoulder and theirs too!

Now let’s say that as well as reporting on what you read and who you shared the information with the book also reported on where you are reading it. Location services on you smartphone, tablet or other mobile device help you locate your lost iPad, tell you how far away the nearest petrol station is and even tag your photos with the precise location in which they were taken. But location services on social network posts log when you left the house, the route you took, how long the journey lasted and where you stopped. This makes it easy for those in the know to send you marketing from businesses along your route. It also makes it easy for a suspicious partner to check your whereabouts and for the criminals casing your house to know how long they have before you return.

And what if that book could see you reading it and stored your image plus all the other information it has about you so that the next time you walk in to a book shop they already know which book you are going to want to read next? Facial recognition software used to be the stuff of science fiction films; a blurry photograph would morph into a clear, crisp image nicely packaged with a name, address and personal history. This is now science fact. With enough processor power, enough storage and a big enough database of images, identifying individuals is possible. But how do you populate such a database? Who’s going to photograph the world’s population and tag the pictures with the individuals’ name, age, location, status, and Likes? That would be those nice people at Facebook, Google and Apple (amongst others). Not that they are actually doing the work because that would be us, uploading selfies from all angles and tagging friends in our photos; allowing apps to use our ‘current location’ and giving a thumbs up to products and services on the web.

Now let’s image that every piece of paper you wrote on was saved, filed and catalogued and that the paper manufacturer owned what you had written. Actually there’s no need to imagine this because it already happens. Cloud services allow you to use any device, anywhere, to access software and data remotely. Storing data in the cloud could be safer than storing it on your laptop or even a school Server. But if your cloud storage solution stores your data on servers based outside of Europe the data is not protected by European data legislation. The US has a completely different take from Europe and the UK on who owns the data and what they can do with it. Everything you host, post or store on servers in the US belong to the online service, not you! And since they own what you think of as your data they can do what they like with it. Social media sites do explain that when you post something on the site you transfer your IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) to the site. It’s in the terms and conditions. Even if you didn’t read them you agreed to them when you took the service. So the social media site already has your permission to sell that amusing photograph you took on holiday or to use your image in a commercial. But don’t expect any royalties. You signed that right away too!

None of this means that you should stop using social media or surfing the web. It’s too late to go back to saving all your files and photos on CDROMs or memory sticks. But what it does mean is that we are living in a world where increasingly the things that we thought we knew about privacy are changing. All of us, cheerfully exchange huge swaths of information about who, where and what we are for ‘free’ file storage, a ‘free’ email address or for the ability not to have remember where we were when we took the photo of the Eiffel Tower. We reveal our tastes, habits and preferences to our friends and in doing so provide marketers and data miners with the ability to see our most personal secrets. We trade our data for access to their web services. What you read and write have ceased to be private or personal. Now it’s all tracked, traced and analysed.

I don’t know about you but I’ll never look at a book in quite the same way again!

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