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Three Things to Remember About Online Privacy

01.25.16 / Alex Manea

Personal privacy is one of the most complex, confusing topics in the connected world. On the one hand, technology has made us hyper-connected, allowing us to communicate and collaborate in ways that our parents could never have imagined. On the other, it often feels like all of this connectivity comes at the cost of our personal privacy.

With more vendors and governments looking to obtain our personal data, it’s getting harder and harder to understand what we can do to protect ourselves. Over the past few months, we’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months discussing the technical ways that BlackBerry protects you and what measures you yourself can take. Today, I want to take a step back and look at the fundamentals.

What are the key things we always need to remember when it comes to personal privacy?

Don’t Ignore Your Privacy

Ignoring Your Privacy

We’re often told that “privacy is dead” for one of two reasons:

  1. No one cares about their privacy because they post everything on Social Media.
  2. You can’t protect your privacy because all online activity is tracked and monitored.

Let’s start with the first one. When I post something on Twitter or Facebook, I choose to share it with my friends because I trust them. Occasionally, I might even share an embarrassing story in a public forum. And while it is true that some people occasionally share things they shouldn’t, that’s often because they don’t understand the long-term consequences.

The key-word here is choice. The fact that we choose to share specific information in certain situations doesn’t give anyone the right to share or obtain our information without our consent. The fact that we choose to share information doesn’t mean that we don’t care about our privacy.

But whether or not we choose to share our information, how do we protect it in an era of ubiquitous digital tracking? It’s easier than you might think. One of the great things about free-market capitalism is that user demand directly drives product development and innovation. Every January, over 150,000 people flock to Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show, one of the largest technology showcases in the world.

This year, I was amazed at the number of companies selling products designed to protect individual privacy, from personal VPNs to personal firewalls to physical keys for secure online payment. What impressed me the most was how easy these products were to set up and use. It was clear that the industry has learned that online privacy isn’t just for tech nerds anymore – it’s for everyone.

Don’t Wear A Tinfoil Hat

Online Privacy Tinfoil Hat

With all of the confusion and paranoia surrounding online privacy, it’s easy to harken back to the “good old days”. Some even go so far as to shun new technologies and avoid going online for fear of being tracked. I know people who refuse to do online banking, who don’t carry a smartphone and who never use social media.

My advice to them: be reasonable and understand what you’re giving up.

When I first started using the internet, it was extremely difficult to find information. You needed to either remember full web addresses or take your chances with primitive search engines like AltaVista and the original WebCrawler. They were slow, painful to use, and rarely gave you the results you wanted.

I’ll never forget the day in my high school law class when I received an assignment to research the legal issues around spanking. I naïvely browsed to AltaVista and typed “spanking” into the search bar. The images and videos I found did not help with my research.

Then along came a small startup named Google that literally changed the Internet. Suddenly, you could type in searches in natural language and instantly get the information you wanted. A few years later, Google Maps enabled anyone with an internet connection to find the fastest route from Point A to Point B. I once told the audience at a conference that without Google Maps, I would still be driving in circles trying to find the venue; it still amuses me that they thought I was joking.

As someone who cares about their personal privacy, I use Google services because the company is forthright about what data they collect, how they use it, and –  most importantly – how they secure it. They explain it in simple language that I can understand and give me control over my data and settings. But in the end, it really comes down to incentives.

Billions of people trust Google with their personal information, and Google invests incredible amounts of time and money into protecting that information. There’s no such thing as perfect security, but there are huge differences in security standards between vendors. I personally choose to use products and services that give me the most value and the highest level of confidence in their commitment to protecting my personal privacy.

What I don’t do is paint all vendors with the same brush and avoid going online altogether. There’s nothing to be gained from that.

Speak With Your Wallet

Hands With Wallet Privacy

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a massive spike in major corporate security and privacy breaches. In most cases, the ultimate victims are innocent customers of the company; the people whose data is stolen and whose lives are impacted. I always find it interesting to watch the public’s reaction, especially in terms of how it affects the company’s efforts to respond and recover.

In nearly all cases, major data breaches are immediately followed by public outrage. Customers want to understand exactly what happened, how it happened, and what the company is doing to recover. The news stories last a few days to a few weeks, but the real impact of the breach usually isn’t felt until a few months later.

As I said before, who you do business with ultimately comes down to incentives. Companies care about the bottom line, and if customers respond to the breach by taking their business elsewhere, the executives will take notice. They will invest internally to prevent future breaches and externally to reassure customers of their commitment.

Every dollar spent to improve security is a dollar well spent, and in the end, all consumers benefit. But when customers continue to use the product or service, it sends a very different message: “We love your product so much that we’re willing to ignore the fact that you don’t protect our privacy.” At that point, what real incentive does the company have to improve their security and prevent future data breaches?

Speaking with our wallets isn’t just about responding to major data breaches we hear about in the news; it’s about the choices we make every single day. It’s about which products we buy and which services we use. Supporting companies that care about our privacy creates a virtuous circle where other companies work to improve their products in order to gain our trust and our business.

Every dollar we spend and every piece of information we share is a vote in one of the most important referendums of the 21st century: how much do we, as individuals, value our personal privacy?

About Alex Manea