Privacy: a birthright worth compromising?

Published on 27 Sep 2010

This article is a part of a series of blog posts that served as an assignment for the course titled Social Implications of Computing (CIS*3000) during my undergraduate studies at the University of Guelph. It was originally published on a free site I had created for the course.

You are in the middle of a heated political debate between your party and your opposition in a real-time online conference. Your team has been doing well and has gotten the opposing party irate. Suddenly, one of your opponents steps up and having no other points to make, tells you to ‘shut up and sit down, or else you’ll regret it’. Feeling victorious and bold, you chuckle and reply ‘Please, what would I regret?’ A few days later, you wake up to an odd phone call from one of your colleagues, who ominously warns you to ‘be careful, you are being watched.’ A day or two after that phone call, you return home from work only to find your house empty and in bad condition, blood stains all over the place, and a lone table upon which lies a note for you that says ‘Too bad, your daughter was charming. I told you you’d regret it.’

From reading this completely exaggerated, fictitious (and ridiculous) story composed by me, you might wonder how the protagonist’s daughter got involved in this. It was an online conference after all. How could the opposition know of the address of residence of the protagonist, the politician? How could someone from the other end of the province know that the protagonist actually had a daughter? From my italicized hints, you can clearly see where I am heading with this. In the story above, the only intentional relevance it has to my train of thought is how the opposition could have possibly found out enough information about the protagonist to be able to commit murder right at his house. With the advancement in computer technology over the past few years, more doors for crime have been opened. One such exploit that criminals, hackers, and even police organizations have used and abused is the fairly careless compromising of online privacy.

No control. Really?

If you were to go to downtown Toronto (Ontario, Canada) and perform a subjective survey among as many people as you could regarding their views on online privacy, you would receive numerous rants about how online services like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter unnecessarily expose so much personal information to everyone. If you were to lead a discussion in an online forum about online file storage, you would observe pages and pages of replies all paraphrasing one same opinion that their files are at a constant threat from potential hackers. Basically, you would notice that people in general feel obliged into various ‘traps’ set by providers of these services. However, what many people almost completely fail to see is that they have complete potential control over most of the situations they are grumpy about. One could write novels on the different strategies and methodologies of protecting information (some have literally done the same), but I particularly desire to talk about what I feel is the most obvious way (that is often ignored) to be well-protected in the internet highway.

Welcome. Next. Terms of Service. Next.

How often do we take the time to read the End Users License Agreement (EULA) and Terms of Service documents of the different products and services that we use on a day-to-day basis? In fact, have we EVER read them before? According to Larry Magid, apparently ‘it really does pay to read EULAs.’ Yes, it probably does take around 10-20 minutes to read them all and yes, they probably do contain 90% of information that has nothing to do with you, but the EULA, ToS, and other legal documents clearly dictate what the service provider expects of you when you agree to use a particular product/service. Not reading these can surely land you into surprises in the future. It is not uncommon for people to lead protests in the streets after the provider of the service does something ‘unusual’ to their computer, only to find out later that they had legally agreed to the company/organization’s right to install monitoring software on their customers’ machines. The very same people who would rant to you about Facebook’s previous controversial Terms of Service most probably did not bother to read the ToS in the first place (which has been similar to those lines ever since 2008 anyway). It is more than safe enough to state that if people would take the time to read these conditional documents, they would be more alert and careful about the information that they share with others, whether directly or indirectly.

Privacy: a form of payment

With all this said, some privacy has to be compromised. For most organizations, information about their customers and clients can literally be a form of payment; these organizations use this information for purposes of evaluation, advertisements, trades with other organizations (and even sometimes other clients/customers), etc. The real question we most probably should be answering is how much information about ourselves are we willing to give in exchange for services? How much are we willing to compromise?

At the same time, we must also consider the fact that we must be willing to compromise some privacy both directly and indirectly. As I mentioned before, not all of our information online is under our control. Certain services require our cooperation, whether we like it or not (government records come to my mind). Regardless, the small services that we use at our own costs like social-networking, online gaming, online banking, etc. definitely make it easier for us to be prone to carelessness, and one of the many ways to be careful is taking the time to read EULA and ToS documents provided by the services we desire. In the long run, this will keep us out of unexpected bumps along the road. In relation to the story at the beginning, my conclusion is that the opposition had access to a hacker who was capable of tracking down the address of the protagonist simply because of a few careless ignorances from his part, be it Facebook, Myspace, online banking, etc.

On a final note, I’m afraid that as humans, we will never reach a state of equilibrium with regards to compromising privacy. However, we can still learn to cope with it by being, as we far too often understate, ‘very careful’.