Monday, October 18, 2010

Privacy... awareness is half of it

Judith Thomson`s discussion of privacy puts all of our worries into a practical perspective. If you’re having a conversation in your house and you don’t want outsiders to hear it, then you should have your windows closed and you should take the measures that you can to ensure that nobody can hear you. If you leave your door and windows open then you can’t keep people from overhearing – you are accountable for your own privacy. It’s the same when using the web. Some people are highly cautious about their privacy when surfing the web. Some even go to lengths to use IP scramblers so they can surf the web anonymously.

In my opinion, the concept of privacy is unique to every individual. We each see and value privacy differently; our vision of privacy is shaped by our knowledge of its implications and our personal values. And as Thomson repeats in her article, the right to privacy is also overlapping with other rights. It’s clear that the concept of privacy is very difficult to define. But if we can’t define it, how can we protect it?

I understand that companies keep track of my actions on shopping websites and use that information in data mining. In this way, I know I am accountable for my actions online, just as I am accountable for my actions in physical public space – and there`s nothing private about either one. When I’m meandering through a store, I can’t keep the clerks from watching me and taking note of my interests. Likewise, when I’m shopping online, I know that something is keeping track of the items I’ve viewed. This is something I have to accept if I want to shop online. Not everyone sees it this way and many people are shocked to find that just because they are surfing the internet alone in a room, doesn`t mean they have complete privacy.

It is hard for average web users to grasp the concept that their actions online do not go unseen simply because there is no physical body watching them. Many people assume that because they use their computers in the privacy of their home, they are private in what they do online. Windows are automatically open when one starts using the Internet – individuals have to go to the length of shutting the windows before they want to do something privately. The problem when it comes to protecting privacy online is that is in increasingly taking more technical skills to ensure one’s privacy. Very few people have the technical skills (and the awareness of the tracking capabilities of most websites) to make sure that they are protected if they want to be. Professional techy people are hired for web companies to write codes that track IPs, collect data, implant cookies, etc. while the majority of internet users barely understand what information they are giving away freely and don’t know where to begin to protect themselves online. This is the difference between Thomson’s practical analyses and privacy online. It’s not as simple as shutting a window. It’s almost impossible to ensure that we have constructed for ourselves impenetrable walls. To protect privacy online, one must take an extra length of effort: one must have the awareness of privacy`s importance, plus technical skills and time to go about protecting oneself. Unfortunately, many of us don`t have the extra time, and many others just can`t be bothered.

Perhaps if there was greater awareness of the serious implications of protecting identity and privacy online, more people would take the extra length of effort.

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