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Guest blog: we should worry more about our online privacy

(15 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Fri 14-Jun-13 14:32:12


Online surveillance has been in the news again this week, with privacy campaigners, commentators and governments debating where the legal and ethical limits to privacy lie.

But while the issue regularly occupies the front pages, it seems that few of us in the 'real world' are particularly concerned about the extent to which we're being monitored online. In today's guest blog Emma Carr, Deputy Director of the civil liberties' campaign group Big Brother Watch, says we should all worry a little bit more.


"A relatively short time ago, only a handful of people had heard of the internet or owned a mobile phone. But the idea that shopping, banking and communicating couldn't all be done on a single, palm-sized device now seems incomprehensible. The internet has changed life beyond recognition in a relatively tiny fraction of time. The danger is that this pace of change, coupled with massive increases in computing power, sees the scale of surveillance - by companies and the government - increase far beyond what we would recognise as a balance between privacy and security.

For instance, the chances are that you or your family own a smartphone, tablet or computer on which you have downloaded free apps. When downloading them, did you ever stop to think about why these services are able to remain free? In the 'real' world, if someone was to offer you unlimited access to a product or service on a completely free basis, the changes are you would question the motives behind their generous offer. Why is it, then, that people are so quick to accept free services online?

Some mobile phone apps are able to gain access to your text messages, phone log, contacts, location data and, in one case, were even able to turn your phone's camera on and off without your knowledge. Granted, this information is buried in the terms and conditions that consumers accept when downloading the app; but how many of us would expect a simple game for your phone to require access to messages, or for a children's picture game to be able to gain access to the camera?

Many online companies claim to be cheerleaders of online privacy and cite it as a top priority whenever they design a new app or service, but these very companies also have privacy policies which are longer than some Shakespeare plays, and are so incomprehensible anyone other than a lawyer would find them difficult to read.

There have been measures within the physical world for decades that protect consumers, so that everybody is aware of what their rights are when shopping on the high street; the same clarification needs to be made online. The key thing to remember is that online, you're not the customer, you're the product.

We accept - although thanks to spectacularly incomprehensible privacy policies rarely understand - that companies are going to take some data about us and use it to sell their advertising services. But what does this mean for your privacy online?

Imagine that you are a teenager (or any age for that matter) and have found out that you are unexpectedly pregnant. You want to research all the options, so you visit various medical websites, or discuss it with a friend via email or instant messenger. The next day a member of your family uses the computer and notices a series of targeted adverts for pregnancy products. Without having to go through your computer history or attempt to snoop on what you have been doing online, that family member now has a pretty good idea that you are pregnant.

It is, of course, not only online companies that have an interest in the information that you put online. There is also a more fundamental shift taking place - that of Governments seeking to use private commercial operations to gather data for use by agents of the state.

We all know that supermarket loyalty cards can create an in-depth picture of our lives - but what if the government were to demand that that data was handed over to ascertain whether you should be entitled to certain public services. Say, for instance, that your child been diagnosed with childhood obesity - whilst your loyalty card shows that you are still buying pizza and ice cream.

Or alternatively, imagine that a whistle blower exposed the government's plans to ditch some family benefits, and the government accessed that person's emails in order to identify them. The government would argue that it was in the public interest to know who had leaked confidential information - but should they be able to delve into all of their communications to do so?

Both scenarios are entirely feasible.

A debate has raged over the last year, both in Parliament and in the media, over the 'snoopers charter', a Bill which would have forced internet service providers to store everyone's communications for a certain period of time, so that police and security services could access those files if required.

Big Brother Watch argues that governments have finite resources, and perhaps it would be better for the security services to focus on targets where there is evidence to suggest that they are committing serious crimes or are a threat to the state - rather than logging everybody's communications data just in case they later need evidence of wrongdoing.

Technology may be changing, but this does not justify moving further away from the basic principles of a democratic society. We would not ask newsagents to record what newspapers and magazines people buy, nor landlords to record who spoke to who in their premises. Surveillance without suspicion was, and remains, against what our legal system has been based on since the Magna Carta.

Everything that I have talked about poses a great challenge to society. If the last year is anything to go by, then both corporate and state surveillance is a rising tide. Once the capability is there to allow surveillance, it is almost unprecedented for it to be removed. And, just because a corporation or state claims that it currently has honest intentions for data collection, it doesn't necessarily mean that this will always be the case.

Emma Carr is Deputy Director of the civil liberties' campaign group Big Brother Watch; on Twitter, she's @emmafrancescarr.

Dackyduddles Fri 14-Jun-13 16:48:40

Unfortunately many people do not consider privacy an issue to be concerned about. They do not take the time to wonder as many concerns sound fictional or futuristic or boring. Once put in terms of their own lives interest is piqued only briefly. My dh thinks I'm odd to be quite concerned. He covers basics but sees no issue with agencies collecting data to help him shop effectively. Or cctv for example. I on the other hand see darker potential of the same data in the wrong hands. Whose silly? Time will tell of that I'm sure. I see it as an issue to walk in the streets over, dh would crack a rib laughing at me for saying that!

Out of interest what does mn do as there's tons of data on this site about lives. Ordinary but useful to someone I'm sure. How does that all work?

TheThickPlottens Fri 14-Jun-13 18:16:22

Interesting piece. I'm quite paranoid already about who is keeping tabs on my information.

I think some countries are already moving towards a cashless society too. Everything purchased can be scrutinised.

I recently installed ghost trackers on firefox and was amazed by the hundreds of tracking sites that were on my list. (excuse my lapse in gargon, are they sites or companies?)

There's little in my life that isn't online now. It's naive of me to think that the information might only be used honourably.

TheFallenNinja Fri 14-Jun-13 18:49:50

In most cases though the majority of "tracking" is simply used to try and sell you a product or a service. It may be irritating but not as sinister as some if the more Luddite commentators would have us believe.

ouryve Fri 14-Jun-13 22:26:31

Most apps remain free by having a load of advertising and/or in app purchases. Just look at the highest grossing app chart and most of the top ones are free apps. They're simply a front to sell you more stuff once you're hooked. That can be a problem in itself, but motives are usually sinister in the way the blog writer is suggesting.

ouryve Fri 14-Jun-13 22:27:06

for are read aren't.

It's late.

starkadder Fri 14-Jun-13 23:20:55

Thanks for this - very interesting and I totally agree that we should be thinking and talking much more about this issue. No-one wants to because we don't really understand it so we just hope it will all be fine - but it might not all turn out fine.

Rulesgirl Sat 15-Jun-13 00:50:37

Online tracking is definitely something people should be more concerned about. Facebook is one example . People put their whole lives there and the amount of profiles you can go on and see all there photos is amazing. In the background of a lot of those photos there is information to be found. Envelopes with addresses on, birthday cards showing ages, front doors showing numbers and names, people saying the villages they live in etc then all you have to do is a search and you can find their house exactly. So easily done and people just seem to innocently carry on doing it.

Tee2072 Sat 15-Jun-13 08:15:27

I just assume I have no privacy online. Ever.

Therefore there is nothing online that I wouldn't talk about in real life.

Dackyduddles "Out of interest what does mn do as there's tons of data on this site about lives. Ordinary but useful to someone I'm sure. How does that all work?"

Like what? Only the stuff you put out there, actually. Unless you mean in your Registration, in which case it's really your responsibility to have a secure password along with MNHQ's responsibility to have secure servers.

TheFallenNinja Sat 15-Jun-13 09:57:35

Advertising a product or service isn't sinister, targeting adverts at groups isn't sinister.

Fear mongering is sinister.

Timeforabiscuit Sat 15-Jun-13 20:43:07

I covered much the same issues in a course, and now think very carefully before I do things like sign up for a tesco club card

For example, tesco offer a health insurance product, on it you state that you are a non smoker, within limits bmi and alcohol intake. You then develop a health problem, and oh dear according to your club card you've been whaling on the alcohol and have triggered an alert on the health policy. Somewhere in the small print you've agreed to them accessing your club card records in return for a cheaper policy.

Now you could say fair enough, it was clear in the t&c - but does that make it right?

GettingStrong Sat 15-Jun-13 22:51:11

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

timidviper Sat 15-Jun-13 23:26:42

I find it all quite scary but it is such a big topic I'll end up paranoid and wearing a tinfoil hat if I really allow myself to worry about it. I worry more about the misuse of information rather than the info being out there or advertising. Years ago Dean Koontz wrote a book about a shady government agency tracking people down via computers and things which was quite frightening.

I clicked on a link in a MN post a while ago and then had a delightful few days of a sidebar containing gimp masks, handcuffs, etc!

Timeforabiscuit Sun 16-Jun-13 08:14:43

Commercial activities are one thing, but what about political affiliations, environmental beliefs, stance on human rights, union activity.

None of this is is in any way illegal - but as we saw in the 70s black listing was prevalent - in today's world it could be made even easier and indeed is if you're loose on your Facebook or twitter.

There are very few ways that an individual can explore ideas on line privately, and I don't like that one bit.

TheFallenNinja Sun 16-Jun-13 19:57:20

Agreed, there are instances where the desire to remain anonymous is needed to research things but consider how the Internet works and there are some ways to reduce your visible footprint but there will always be a path to your door for those who wish to find it.

But, this is not limited to or unique to the Internet, the rumour mill has been grinding since mankind learned to speak, loos lips sinks ships is as relevant today as it has ever been, newspapers, politicians and rabble rousing bloggers are simply blowing it out of all proportion.

On one hand we as a people want all means at our disposal to catch Terrorists or sex offenders yet we get precious when advertising is targeted at us, we bandy words like hacking around but keep passwords on post it notes and we insist on better and better security but complain bitterly when something changes without their express consultation.

We want too much and take no responsibility in solving the problem.

I spent a lot of years working in commercial IT. The biggest fights were around "access". With no understanding of consequences logins were shared, passwords kept on pin boards in envelopes marked "passwords" USB sticks from home brought in and used with no care for consequence.

Its mind bogglingly easy to protect your personal data, but dazzlingly easy to publicise it.

On balance, to sell a lot of computers, we are told its easy, secure and simple and a child could do it, the truth is very much the opposite.

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