Government and individual efforts needed to ensure data privacy

January 26, 2020 — by Harshini Velchamy and Alan Zu

Providing private data brings users many benefits, but it also brings unintended consequences.

Facebook, the world’s most popular social media platform, is constantly in the news for its lack of respect for violating users’ privacy. Yet, most of us continue to use it without a second thought. 

For years, we’ve been signing away our rights to privacy, and either we don’t notice it or we just don’t care enough to try and stop it. The reason is that most of us seem to have too much trust in the companies that hold so much information about us. Given the poor record of companies like Facebook and people’s inability to detach from social media, it’s time for more regulation. The federal government needs to ensure companies follow their own data privacy policies, and users must have more individual awareness about protecting their digital footprints.

When using online platforms, users often unintentionally leak their private data: They reveal their interests from Facebook posts; they reveal certain behaviors from daily search patterns such as what school they attend or what they have for breakfast; or they reveal the information of other people, some who may not have given consent.

When a user goes on certain websites, his or her computer connects with the website on another server, sharing the user’s IP address with that website. Because each electronic device has a unique IP address, third parties can easily match people to websites they have searched, even if the user “deletes” his or her internet history in an attempt to “erase” their digital footprint.

Many corporations using personal data have made it difficult for users to keep their data completely private. Social media platforms such as Instagram or Chinese-owned TikTok depend mainly on photo and video posts, enabling easier identification using facial features by third-party members. With recent progress in artificial intelligence, computers are able to recognize people much faster with facial recognition and combine private data much more efficiently to provide a more detailed profile of any single individual.

This is not to say that there are no benefits to providing private data to companies. GPS systems like Google Maps work better with more users. They can provide support and services if there are any difficulties on the road.

The issue isn’t inherent to the sharing of data; it’s that private data is often sold to third parties, including governments. For example, after completing an online course, several emails about similar alternate courses often pop up, indicating the sharing of information with a third party. 

This particular example may appear harmless enough, but often it isn’t as benign. Many find that the personal information that they provided companies with have been shared with other groups. 

Companies such as Facebook and Google argue that they provide the option for users to opt out of data collection by simply selecting the choice from the app settings. However, the FTC's director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection, Jessica Rich, testified that companies often do not follow through on their claims.

Internet usage is something we can’t escape, from helping students study for exams to searching open jobs to filling out college applications, but people should not blindly rely upon corporate privacy policies and assume that their data is completely safe.

Individuals will also need to take their part in protecting their data by being more aware about what they post and search online. Until systems are better and governments hold companies more accountable, it makes sense to post fewer family photos and make other efforts to reduce our digital fingerprint.