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Monday, May 20, 2019

Have Consumers Already Lost the Online Privacy War?

Because consumers are used to receiving services online for free, tech companies will find it hard to succeed with a traditional business model.

Image by prettysleepy1 from Pixabay

Technology has increasingly come to occupy a central role in our lives. Growing numbers of people, however, have expressed concerns over how much of our privacy we’ve sacrificed for the sake of convenience.

Networks are under assault from cyber attacks like never before, resulting in frequent, massive data breaches. Perhaps even more significantly, companies seem to be gathering data on customers, often without their knowledge, in an effort to more precisely target their advertising.

Most people are much too careless about what they post and leave information online as if it were a secure repository.

You’ve probably noticed your smartphone suddenly recommending products you were just researching as if the device was hardwired to your brain. This is made possible through bulk user data collection and cookies—not that kind of cookie. This kind of cookie. It enhances advertising but adversely affects personal online privacy.

Why Is This Happening?

One reason is simple carelessness on the part of internet users. Too many of us don’t take cybersecurity seriously, not bothering to take even simple, standard precautions like using a virtual private network (VPN) any time we’re online. Users almost never read the user agreements before signing up for an account with a service like Facebook, treating such opportunities as annoyances and failing to realize that they are signing away the rights to anything they might post online.

Additionally, most people are much too careless about what they post and leave information online as if it were a secure repository. A bit of advice: it’s not.

The Real Cost of Free Stuff

An important but often overlooked point in accounting for why consumers’ privacy is at such risk online has to do with certain economic decisions, wittingly and unwittingly, that we’ve made along the road of internet development. Not only do people unthinkingly post private information online, but they have also grown to expect certain things from the internet.

As economist and technology enthusiast George Gilder pointed out in his recent book Life After Google, technology companies like Google and Facebook have spoiled users by providing all sorts of online services at no direct cost.

Because consumers are used to receiving services online for free, tech companies will find it hard to succeed with a traditional business model.

These technology companies must find ways to make money, or what’s the point in existing? Hence their incentive to monetize their users’ personal data. Were consumers simply willing to patronize social media or other internet companies that charged them directly for services, bulk data collection and its sale to third parties would either be heavily discouraged or virtually disappear.

As Gilder rightly perceives, however, since consumers have grown accustomed to receiving services online for free, tech companies that try to implement a traditional business model will find it a hard row to hoe. In the age of Google, a search engine that charged users even a small fee would almost certainly be a non-starter, even if that search engine scrupulously kept its hands off all user data.

A Complicit Government

Another significant problem not mentioned often in discussions of this subject is that governments want bulk data collection. When a company like Facebook gathers data on users and builds profiles of them, we should expect that this data will become a resource our dedicated public servants will find a way to tap.

Calls by those like Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg for government regulation of tech companies should be treated with skepticism. Such a move would allow Facebook to avoid responsibility for violating consumer trust. It would also entrench current tech titans (like Facebook) firmly at the head of the pack going forward. By crafting regulation to suit themselves, large tech companies make it more difficult for smaller companies to compete with them in the future.

What’s Being Done about It?

Fully aware of these problems, newer tech companies have invented more creative ways to raise revenue while respecting their users’ privacy and not charging them directly for online services. One such revenue-generating exploit—open to companies that provide blockchain-based services—is the Initial Coin Offering (ICO).

With an ICO, tech companies seeking to provide a blockchain-based service create an associated cryptocurrency and sell that cryptocurrency on the open market, using the money raised to either provide startup capital meant to get the business off the ground or revenue to keep it operational.

Internet 2.0 Focuses on Privacy

By original design, the internet was not meant to be a particularly private place. To circumvent this, projects like Blockstack have attempted to redesign the internet with consumer privacy and control over one’s own data in mind. This alternative architecture structures the entire internet like a blockchain network and grants each user a unique, cryptographically sealed identity.

This Internet 2.0 intends to give users complete control over their own information, no longer requiring them to hand it over in return for using a “free” service like Facebook or Google. Furthermore, because the whole network relies on the consensus-building mechanism of blockchains, it is virtually impossible to hack.

Internet 2.0 tackles the problem of insufficient online privacy through the free market without the need for government involvement.

Hacking the network would require an attacker to commandeer enough computing power to be able to control and rewrite a majority of the nodes on the network. For all but the smallest networks, this is infeasible.

The significance of these new innovations is difficult to overstate as they would not only guarantee privacy from large tech companies but from the government, as well. These developments also show a way to tackle the problem of insufficient online privacy through the free market without the need for government involvement.

But What Can You Do?

While we should be grateful that there are technological developments going on right now to eventually help consumers wrest control of their private information back from cybercriminals and overzealous mega-companies, what can you, as an individual, do right now to maintain your online privacy? Here are a few suggestions:

Always Use a VPN:

VPNs encrypt all of your network traffic and keep it beyond the reach of snoops and hackers seeking to harm you. Encryption is indispensable to maintaining online privacy these days. To help you evaluate the suitability of any particular service, take a look at unbiased third-party VPN reviews of major VPN services before purchasing. Also, check associated forums to see if there are any major complaints.

Use strong and unique passwords:

Every password you use online should be long and difficult to guess. Don’t use the same password for multiple accounts online.

Never post private stuff publicly:

Never post anything online that you wouldn’t be comfortable sharing with the entire world. While this might seem self-evident, judging from the terrible decisions made regularly by people who end up in the news, the practice is apparently hard to resist. Everything on the internet is forever. Be careful what you post.

Use a browser like Brave:

If you’re worried about large tech companies collecting your data, the Brave browser is one way to protect yourself. Brave prevents the giant information hogs we’ve been discussing from harvesting your data and using it to target you with advertisements. As an added bonus, you should notice faster browsing speeds, as well.

The Bottom Line

Consumer privacy is under siege in the era of Big Data. Users have grown so accustomed to receiving certain services for free that we’ve been unwitting accomplices in signing away our own privacy in order to save a buck. While the present looks bleak in this regard, it seems we may be near a tipping point. Perhaps the future will usher in substantial changes as more privacy-conscious tech companies work on delivering a new internet business model that returns the power of privacy to each individual consumer.

  • Sam Bocetta is a retired defense contractor for the U.S. Navy, freelance journalist and part-time cybersecurity coordinator at AssignYourWriter. He specializes in finding solutions to seemingly-impossible ballistics engineering problems. Sam writes independently for a handful of security publications, reporting on trends in international trade, InfoSec, cryptography, cyberwarfare, and cyberdefense.