5 myths about the definition of privacy you probably believe
The definition of privacy is straightforward in theory, but more complicated in reality. Constant advances in technology have drastically altered our online experience. Today, we go online not just to research and work, but to shop, explore, connect, and express ourselves. In the process, we end up sharing an enormous amount of data — data that contains insights into who we are and how we live.
As a result, our culture’s definition of privacy has become increasingly more nuanced and complex. Like most things internet-adjacent, privacy online is a gray area. On one hand, defining privacy loosely allows for more fluidity and possibility; on the other hand, however, it can cause confusion and perpetuate misconceptions.
It’s hard to know what to believe when there are so many myths surrounding the definition of privacy. These are five of the most common ones:
Only criminals have to worry about online privacy
Deleting cookies improves your privacy
Closing apps protects your privacy
Using private or incognito mode offers maximum privacy
You don’t really have any control over your privacy online
Consider how the following myths have shaped your definition of privacy.
Myth #1: Only criminals have to worry about online privacy
It’s a common misconception that individuals who engage in suspicious or criminal behavior online are the only people who have to worry about privacy. Privacy, however, is a universal concern. Just because you have nothing to hide doesn’t mean you’re invulnerable to privacy breaches.
Many companies today use your personal information in ways you may not be comfortable with. Websites and apps can monitor your digital behavior, for example, gather data on your location, habits, and preferences, then use this data to generate a profit, either by sending you targeted ads or selling your data to third parties. This type of data tracking can feel invasive and frustrating, especially if you don’t consent to it.
Myth #2: Deleting cookies improves your privacy
Cookies, small data files stored by your local web browser, contain a wealth of information about your online behavior, including your favorite websites, search history, and login information. You might assume, then, that deleting your cookies increases your privacy by making it more difficult for companies to track you. Unfortunately, this isn’t necessarily the case.
You can delete your cookies, but they’ll likely just be reconstructed unless you change certain browser settings and delete your cache and history as well. Disabling cookies and resetting your browser doesn’t protect your device from fingerprinting, though.
Companies and internet service providers (ISPs) can still gather information on your browser type, operating system, time zone, screen resolution, and plug-ins even without cookies. These unique details come together to form your device’s fingerprint, which can then be used to identify you.
Myth #3: Closing apps protects your privacy
Most apps disclose the fact that they’re gathering your data when you use them. What you may not know, however, is that certain internet privacy definitions allow these apps to access your data even when you’re not using them. In other words, closing an app on your device doesn’t necessarily guarantee your privacy.
Many apps, for example, are automatically set to track your location at all times, including when the app is closed. Though the most common location tracking apps are GPS-related, there are plenty of other ones that demand access to your whereabouts, including weather apps, ride sharing apps, news apps, restaurant reservation apps, travel apps, and hotel booking apps. Unless you actively disable these settings, you could be unknowingly sharing sensitive personal data with businesses and advertisers, whether you want to or not.
In fact, a 2018 report from The New York Times found that at least 75 companies receive “precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information.” The same report also identified more than 25 other companies that said they sell location data to businesses for targeted advertising purposes.
Myth #4: Using private or incognito mode offers maximum privacy
The majority of popular web browsers give users the option to open new tabs or windows in private or incognito mode, which provides a degree of anonymity when surfing the web. However, these modes aren’t fast tracks to total privacy.
Private or incognito mode is perfect for a task like checking email on a public computer or buying a gift for a family member, since it hides your browsing history and cache from anyone using your computer. In addition to giving you a blank slate for each browsing session, it also doesn’t store cookies or personal information.
That doesn’t mean it can prevent websites and ISPs from identifying you, though. The sites you visit may not have access to your cookies in incognito mode, but website hosts can still gather information by fingerprinting your device, identifying your IP address, and sending tracking data back to their servers.
A 2018 study from the University of Chicago found that many people overestimate the protections private mode offers. For example, 56.3% of participants thought that when they were logged into Google on private mode, their search queries wouldn’t be saved. However, that’s not true; using private mode prevents your search history from being saved on your local web browser, but Google can still access your searches.
Myth #5: You don’t really have any control over your privacy online
The increase in data collection and tracking has gradually changed the definition of privacy — from something most people feel they have control over to something they’re forced to surrender.
According to a 2018 survey from Arm Treasure Data, over 64% of consumers are concerned about companies like Google and Facebook monitoring their online behavior, but 46.5% of consumers either aren’t doing anything about it or don’t know what to do.
Fortunately, there are concrete things you can do to protect your privacy. Here are four smart rules to follow:
Use discretion when downloading apps that have too many risky permissions
Turn off your location sharing settings when you’re not using your apps
Carefully read the disclaimers when syncing your apps with your social media accounts
Review your Facebook privacy settings to make sure you’re comfortable with everything
You can also download and use a virtual private network (VPN) to help encrypt your data. A VPN isn’t a perfect solution, but it can help limit the amount of data companies acquire about you. It works by routing your data through an encrypted tunnel to a separate server run by the VPN; that way, no one connected to your router, including your ISP, can see your web behavior.
How to regain control over your privacy
You shouldn’t have to give up your privacy if you don’t want to. The new definition of privacy should take your personal needs into account. Not only should you have the ability to choose how visible you are no matter where you go online, you should also be able to adjust that visibility as often as you want.
The beauty of the internet is the freedom it offers — freedom to explore and express yourself on your terms. FigLeaf wants to help redefine privacy by putting the power back in your hands.