Control Access to Your Personal Information

Is online and private a paradox? Can I really protect myself and my family? Is privacy a myth?

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What is privacy?

It is the ability to control access to one’s personal information.

What is personal information?

Any information that can identity a person is personal information. It could be simply one’s name or a unique identifier like social security number, or a combination of multiple data items which when clubbed together identify the person.

What is the harm in identifying a person?

Phishing is a leading cyber-crime today. In simple words, phishing is sending fraudulent communication that appears to come from a reputable source. When your personal information is exposed online, you may be targeted for fraudulent activities leading to financial loss, mental stress and other issues. This becomes possible when your personal information is exposed and therefore misused. Similarly, identity theft is another major cyber-crime.

What are the other issues with lack of privacy?

The evolution of the smartphone, social media and app industries have changed the online landscape in a big way. When an app is “free”, one should really ponder where they are making money from? After all, there is nothing called a “free lunch”. So if you are not paying in cash, how else could you be paying? There is a common saying that “if you are not the customer, then you are the product.”

The digital advertising industry was valued at $ 500 billion in year 2022. It is expected to cross $ 800 billion by 2026. Tracking users, their profile, location and other personal information are the main raw materials to this industry.

What is the impact on children?

In today’s age, children typically get a smartphone when they become teenagers. It is not surprising they are aware that 13 years is the threshold for signing up on social media. That becomes their first online milestone. They start off innocently, to be cool with friends, with full excitement and a lot of online activity. Little are they aware of privacy issues and cyber-crimes. Parents have little say, and when they do, children tend to go “private” on them.

World over, the early online exposure of children has led to several physical and emotional issues for them. Many are unable to handle the stress of responding to messages and posts in a “timely manner”. If their posts are read but ignored, it leads to anxiety. Some get trolled badly. These are difficult issues even for adults, yet children jump into them not knowing “how to swim”.

Wonder why social media has a threshold of 13 years whereas voting, marriage, driving license and bank accounts require one to be an adult?

What is a data breach?

A data breach is a security incident in which an unauthorised party gets access to confidential information. In the privacy context, imagine a hacker or a disgruntled employee gaining access to your data stored with your app provider. This mostly occurs due to some security weakness in the app infrastructure, network, the frontend or backend software or database, or the access process itself.

Privacy is a superset that covers security as well. For any app to be private, its security must also be robust. However, no security is fool-proof and any app may be penetrable. It is for this reason that companies continuously enhance their security with technology advancements, infrastructure and process improvements.

What is privacy violation?

Privacy violation is mishandling user information leading to leakage and compromise. It may also be unlawful, if there exists a privacy or data protection law in the given geography.

Privacy violations may occur for profiteering by the app provider too. In the last few years, some of the major app providers have been fined over $ 3 billion for privacy violations.

What safeguards do privacy data protection laws provide?

General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe has led the way towards serious privacy laws. Today, the whole world has woken up and almost every major country is framing regulation to protect their citizens. None of this would have happened if this was not a big issue. However, most such laws are reactive in nature with financial penalties as their main tool in case of privacy violations.  Considering the mega size of the online social media and digital advertising industry, any fine will be just a trickle. Furthermore, if one’s identity or data has been breached and exposed online, it is almost impossible to retract it. So consumers have to use a preventive approach rather than bank on laws in order to be safe online and protect their families.

Unfortunately, our lives will continue to be more and more online. It is therefore important that we acknowledge the fact that online privacy is not an option any more, but a necessity. Thinking that my neighbour will be impacted and not me is the biggest myth today.

What could be the fallout of artificial intelligence?

Generative AI is a continuously growing information pool. It is like a dinosaur whose appetite is massive. If used for the right reasons, it could help in many ways unthinkable in the past. But then, everything has a flip side too. After all, AI is a technology available to the good, the bad and the ugly. It is for this reason that major governments are already talking about regulating it.

For consumers, and irrespective of the technologies now or in the future, the only real safeguard is one’s own awareness and actions. As a starting point, start reading the privacy policy of the apps you want to use, and discard the ones in which the privacy offered by the app seems ambiguous or exposed.

What can one do?

Education and practice are your weapons. They are not impenetrable but can provide a formidable defence.

·       Start by reading about privacy and data protection laws.

·       Check published statistics on data breaches and cyber-crimes.

·       Use social media only for sharing what is public for you. This includes instant chat apps. Use privacy apps for everything else.

·       Protect your device. If you use an access pattern to unlock, remember that it is quite easy to break it because the pattern will be visible since you do it frequently. Biometrics access can enhance security unless the fallback is the access pattern.

·       Do not use perpetual login for apps which hold your private data. Most people have perpetual login for their email apps which have most of your communications, documents, ids and passwords and other important data. Switch to private email without perpetual login.

·       Do not make simple passwords or the same ones for all apps. Use a password manager or a privacy app to store passwords.

·       Read the privacy policy of the apps you want to use.

·       Do not get tempted with free apps. Nothing is free in the real world.

These are just some things you can practice. The beauty is that once you start with the first task, you will have your own list of “Dos and Don’ts”.

Stay online because you have to. Go private because you need to.


Manish Mehrotra

Consulting, digital transformation and infrastructure services are his forte. Currently based in Sydney, Australia. - Exploring privacy.