In a world where the use of technology is growing, how much has the issue of privacy been neglected? Or is it a sacrifice worth making for personalised use of the internet? 


Imagine a world where virtual reality is seamlessly interwoven into our lives; indistinguishable from reality.

Imagine a world where artificial intelligences are everywhere.

Imagine smart homes, smart roads, and smart cities, where everything is controlled by the internet.

The possibilities are endless, and so will be the future of the internet, and who knows how fast it will evolve?

As you may know, the internet is a virtual, decentralised, interconnected platform, as explained by the name- the prefix inter meaning ‘reciprocal, mutual’  and network, hence internet- a network of connecting networks.


The first workable prototype of the Internet was only invented in the late sixties, it was only in 1989 that the World Wide Web was invented, and only in 2007 that the first iPhone was unveiled. The internet has existed for a miniscule period of our 200,000 year human history, quoted as “an adolescent at best”, yet it has transformed and revolutionised our daily lives, reaching almost 4.6 billion people, 59 percent of the global population. 


But why is it useful and why will it last? 

The internet will evolve as it satisfies the human nature of curiosity: it’s an infinite pool of information at our disposal: not only is it free, but it is also extremely convenient. At the click of a button, the internet can be used from entertainment to business, from connecting with people globally to gathering information- it is a completely different world, something unimaginable from the past where you would have had to scour through thousands of books to find the right information. You had to go to the market repeatedly if you had forgotten some groceries because there was no Amazon. You couldn’t know how your friends were doing, and where they were because there was no social media. With all these attractive benefits, people give up their data willingly, disregarding the consequences, choosing convenience over security. Now think about doing these activities with a stranger watching you unknowingly.


The truth is, whilst the future of technology seems optimistic, there is the essential, ethnical, bleak prospect of the end of privacy.  


Firstly, what actually is privacy? Why does it matter? Privacy is said to be the state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people. Therefore, internet privacy is the right to keep sensitive data and information produced as a result of using the web, private. As a human right, it matters because not only is it essential for national security, it is also a limit on power held over us by the government and companies: the more someone knows about us, the more power they can have over us as personal data can easily be exploited and used against us to affect our personal lives. It keeps you in control. For example, would you want a hacker with your data? However, companies currently are selling and using our data in ways that we don’t know. It could easily end up in the wrong hands.


There is a saying that if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. There is no free lunch in the world because somebody has to do the work. Then how comes the internet, such a wonderful invention, is free? How do they continue to grow? 


Every time you use the internet, you are giving a multi-billion dollar company more information about who you are, because to interact with most websites, some information is necessary: whenever you visit a new site, you may encounter the annoying privacy-policy update, asking for your permission for cookies to be used. Cookies are not biscuits, but essentially are data downloaded onto your device so the next time you visit that site, your device checks to see if it has a relevant cookie and sends the stored information back to the site.  The site now ‘knows’ that you have been there before, and can tailor activity to take account of that fact. 


Depending on what you consented to, cookies record specific data such as how long you spend on each page, what links you click etc. The possibilities are endless, and generally are beneficial, making your interaction with frequently-visited sites smoother and more convenient. There is nothing especially secret about the information gathered by cookies- it is all on the small print if you bothered to read it, as required by EU law from 2012- but you may just dislike the idea of your information being used to target you.


When cookies first appeared, there was controversy with your device being used without warning to store personal information about you, which could then be used to build a picture of your browsing habits. The fear is justified as some websites may not be secure, allowing hackers to intercept cookies and view the information they carry. Consequently they are best to be used on safe and secure sites.


In some instances, if you don’t want to consent for the use of cookies, you can ignore it. However some websites require consent to allow browsing. Personally, I tried the setting to turn off all cookies on websites, and….it was extremely inconvenient and a nuisance to deal with as there are so many sites that you can’t access.


For companies like Amazon, “the trillion dollar digital economy is built on harvesting people's personal data,”the richest company in the world, net worth of $1.12 trillion.  They build profiles on us with this data,  and then tailor market strategies. The truth is, you have little control over the information that is collected because even if you didn’t consent, there are other means. For example, machine learning, a type of AI which allows machines to ‘learn’ from received data, is being used everywhere: Youtube, TikTok, Facebook etc. They are built on recommending videos that you like for success. And they work! They work because you get what you want, and the companies earn money, it is a win-win right?


Personally I think it is too, as long as the information is in safe hands, which it is not: For example, you may know American whistleblower Edward Snowden, who leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 when he was a CIA employee. His disclosures revealed numerous global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA with the cooperation of telecommunication companies and European governments, recently ruled illegal. One of these was the surveillance programme PRISM, which collects data from various U.S. internet companies such as Google and Yahoo. It was also unveiled that 2,776 abuses of privacy were made in 2012, most of which involve unauthorized surveillance of Americans.He now is in exile in Russia, fearing for his life if he leaves.


This inevitably prompted debates about national security and individual privacy, leading to more problems, being such an issue that in 2018, the EU enacted the General Data Protection Regulation(the GDPR). This gives users greater control over the information that companies collect about them. Why would there be a law needed if there were no problems, as there would not be a need for a law?


The answer may lie in data breaches and widespread hacking. Facebook was part of a data breach in 2018  where millions of users’ personal data was harvested by researchers in Cambridge Analytica who sought to sell the data of US voters to political campaigns such as Donald Trumps’. This scandal was also leaked, by a former Cambridge Analytica employee Christopher Wylie, who said that the data collected was detailed enough to create a profile of the subjects, and enough to customise advertisements to persuade people for a particular political event.


With such blatant issues, how are the companies responding, how are they getting away with this? The common trend is that they seemed to argue that only people who have something to hide have a reason to want to hide, which is a valid point. Why would you want to hide something if you have nothing to hide? If you have nothing to hide, you wouldn’t mind a stranger intruding in on your activities at any time. There is nothing to see after all! These would all be true if they weren’t coming from hypocrites. When in a 2009 interview with CEO of  tech-giant Google Eric Schmidt, was asked about the different ways his company is causing invasion of privacy, he argued the same point: “ if you are doing something that you don’t want others to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”.   They may claim verbally that they don’t care about privacy, but action speak louder than words. These people take steps to safeguard their privacy- they put passwords to their accounts, locks on their houses. They value their privacy just as anyone else does! Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook Incorporation which has companies such as Instagram and Whatsapp under its belt, spent $30 million buying 4 neighbouring houses for more privacy,  which is pretty ironic seeing as Facebook’s history with data. 


This argument is also fairly flawed and like Snowden’s response to this argument "Arguing that you don't care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don't care about free speech because you have nothing to say." It is  giving up your rights for the sake of convenience. Perhaps nothing will happen now, but perhaps in the future, we are bound to regret it.


From these whistleblowers and new legislation, we now know that governments for example, are not just watching terrorists and criminals. There is an increasing fear that governments, particularly more authoritative ones, will use these new technologies for their own purposes- information is power after all. In the end, it is ultimately up to you to do what you think is right, but it is important to take precautions to keep sensitive information such as passwords safe. It is important to beware of insecure sites,  your digital footprint, and updating your device for security.  But how far is too far?



Whilst every care has been taken to assure that the information contained in this article is accurate, if there are unfortunately mistakes or insensitivities, please highlight it and it will be corrected as soon as possible.