How the definition of privacy has drastically changed over the last 20 years
The advent of the internet changed countless aspects of our daily lives, including how we learn, communicate, work, think, and define different values, like privacy.
Before it was normal to go online every day, the definition of privacy was more straightforward. It was up to us to choose what to share, when to share it, and with whom. But the internet complicated the way we share and receive information.
As technology has advanced, it’s become even easier to gather information at the click of a button at any time of day. The problem with this mass exposure, though, is that it works two ways — you may be able to see everything online, but you can also be seen.
As a result, our culture’s definition of privacy has changed dramatically. Here are the mainstays of today’s privacy model:
Complex privacy settings
Let’s explore how each of these factors has gradually shifted the larger privacy definition.
1. Data tracking
Twenty years ago, keeping your personal information private meant exercising caution when talking to strangers — in chat rooms, for example — and limiting the number of personal details you shared online.
Now, however, rampant data tracking has complicated the definition of privacy. The majority of companies and websites today track your digital behavior — often without your knowledge or consent — and record the sites you visit, social media pages you like, products you purchase, and email lists you sign up for.
According to the 2018 State of Data Privacy Survey from Arm Treasure Data, over 64% of consumers are concerned about web giants like Facebook and Google monitoring their online behavior. This worry is understandable, but the first step to protecting your privacy online is understanding how, when, and to what extent your personal information is exposed.
2. Opt-out policies
Sharing your personal information online used to be an active, conscious decision. In the last 20 years, though, sharing has become the default choice.
Part of the reason is the pervasiveness of opt-out policies, which have largely replaced opt-in standards. Opt-in requires you to consent to providing your information — like your name, email address, and preferences — when you subscribe to a site. This usually shows up as a login form or pop-up box that requires you to click “Accept” to continue using the site.
Opt-out policies, on the other hand, rely on passive consent, which means that unless you find and uncheck a pre-checked box, you’re agreeing to your information being shared. Not only are opt-out policies presumptuous, but they also place an unfair burden on consumers to understand the consequences of leaving certain boxes checked.
3. Tracking cookies
Cookies — or small data files that save your personal details and preferences on your local web browser — were invented to make surfing the internet easier and faster. Cookies can remember your favorite website and fill in the URL for you, for example, so you don’t have to type in the full address every time.
Like many aspects of the internet, though, the concept of cookies has changed — from something designed to help users to something companies can use for commercial gain. Tracking cookies, the newer variation of standard cookies, have altered the definition of privacy.
These cookies can gather a whole host of personal information, including your:
Tracking cookies then send this data back to its host to help create targeted ads. Picture this familiar scenario: You search for a pair of sunglasses on Amazon, then head to a news site and see an ad for the exact frames you were just looking at. That’s tracking cookies at work.
Of course, some people enjoy receiving product updates, discounts, or suggested ads, but being subjected to unwanted ads can feel invasive. You should have the right to choose whether to be visible or not, but unfortunately, the current definition of privacy doesn’t allow for much user autonomy.
4. Third-party apps
The rise of online advertising has gradually changed the way people view and define privacy. Though some apps and websites are self-contained entities, others require the addition of third-party apps to maintain or improve functionality.
These third-party apps have their own privacy policies users often know nothing about, which can make it difficult to know what exactly you’re consenting to when you download an app.
Companies are taking advantage of the wealth of information available online to market to their audiences more effectively. In fact, a 2018 study from the International Computer Science Institute said that eight of the top 10 global advertising and tracking companies “reserve the right to sell or share data with other organizations, while all [10 companies] reserve the right to share data with their subsidiaries.” Now, the concern isn’t just who sees your data, but how your data is stored or sold for future use.
5. Complex privacy settings
Over the years, social media has become less exclusive and more universal. According to a 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center, 69% of American adults said they use at least one social media platform.
As social media has advanced, privacy settings have become more layered and complex. Many social media platforms have default privacy settings you can’t opt out of, while others don’t offer complete protection. For example, you may be able to limit who sees your posts on Facebook, but your information can still get to third parties through friends who click or comment on your pictures and posts.
The “like” button on Facebook acts as a particularly effective tracking tool:
Even if you choose not to post on social media, what you “like” can still show up in other people’s newsfeeds and reach online advertisers.
These companies gather data on the publications you read, messages you like, and events you’re interested in.
They then use that information to create targeted ads and tailor your newsfeed content.
6. Mobile apps
Twenty years ago, it was easier to protect your online privacy when you used a desktop computer just once a day. Your internet time was limited, so your data was limited, too.
Now, advances in smartphone technology have made it easier than ever to use the internet constantly. That means we’re carrying sensitive personal information in our pockets at all times — and potentially giving corporations access to this data.
Mobile apps in particular have changed the definition of privacy. Both free and paid apps request permission to access users’ private information, like location, camera roll, audio recording, and call logs. In fact, according to a 2018 survey from SafeDK on software development kit (SDK) trends in the Android market, over 55% of apps still have at least one SDK capable of accessing users’ location information.
Of course, sharing information like location can be helpful if you need to use a GPS app to receive accurate directions, for example. But the existence of third-party apps and integration options complicates things.
If you connect an app with your social media accounts, for example, it may make it easier to log in or share information with your friends, but it also means that app has access to personal information like your email address and username. This type of data exchange isn’t inherently suspicious, but it’s helpful to be aware of exactly how much information you’re sharing.
It’s time for a new privacy definition
Just like the tech devices we use and love, the larger definition of privacy is still evolving. Instead of resigning yourself to a privacy definition that values profit over transparency, it’s time to rethink the way you define it.
Privacy should be a choice. You should be able to decide how much information you share at any given time. Mostly, you should feel free to create, explore, and express yourself on your terms. FigLeaf is made for our evolved definition of privacy and lets you take full control of your visibility online — when and where you want to.