Once upon a time (1994 to be exact), browser cookies were introduced. They were accepted by default, as a means to preserve state, and almost no body knew about them. In February 1996, the Financial Times revealed the cookie secret and third party cookies were considered a privacy threat. Third party cookies were soon put to use by the advertising industry and it took three cookie specifications to establish the current standard of 2011. In fact, third party cookies were accepted by default in some major browsers until recently and many users may not know how to disable them. People are still encouraged to accept cookies to personalize site navigation and improve browsing experience.
It is true that cookies, as encrypted plain text files, are unable to infect your device with viruses or malware, but they can profile your browsing habits, store and share them. Some cookies are now essential for a site to function normally (ex. authentication cookies), so you are forced to accept them.
With HTML 5, browsers added local storage for persistence and even recreation of deleted cookies. Geolocation was also added and if you are logged in or using a portal or a service, you are known by identity and location, you are profiled and your data is stored and shared. Data mining is used to extract knowledge for advertising companies, research labs or synthesized as contact databases of various interest groups.
Enter social media and smart devices – you are not only known by name and email, but by exact location, face, friends, events, preferences and beliefs. What you say, search for, do, watch, like or dislike is either data or metadata – collected for analysis either for commercial or safety/security purposes.
Of course, you always have options (short of staying away from technology). What if you decide not to login to use Google search (your location is known, though)? What if you decide to cover your cam lens – not because you have something to hide, but because you are entitled to some privacy (and you know that cam and mic can be switched on without any indication to that effect)? I have bad news for you: this is meta data and meta data is being collected by big brother. Google may read your Gmail using a robot to display relevant ads, but the other guys read its meta data and keep a full copy of your messages aside, just in case. So does Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – just to name a few. Facebook even conducted experiments on its users and there is nothing to stop others from doing the same.
Now that smart devices are widespread and with the introduction of wearables as well as adding interactivity to appliances and the spread of monitoring devices in public places and availability of access points, information generation, analysis and sharing is becoming the norm. Your group picture on Instagram today could identify you the moment you enter a local store and you may receive an endorsement to buy a certain item from the same friend you talked about it or discussed with earlier. You are not the only source of information about yourself, your friends and acquaintances can tag you and talk about you without you even knowing (your opponents as well!).
Do not be surprised to learn that entity X can trace your whole life and play back a movie of your daily activity – when you woke up, what you had for breakfast, what TV channel you watched, whom you talked to, what you searched for, where you tweeted from or updated your Facebook status or uploaded a short movie, where you took that Instagram picture and where you went for shopping. Of course, you did nothing wrong, but does this entitle an entity because it has the capability or access to your personal life to invade your privacy for whatever reason?
Encryption and open source are usually mentioned as a workaround but neither can protect you. Encryption standards are made to be broken for those who have the resources and when the backdoor is built into the operating system, there is little to do – not to mention the need to install an app or a game you need but may not trust.
Basic rights, including privacy, are protected – not granted – by constitutions. Privacy cannot be traded for money (marketing) or security. Those are important concerns but should be addressed in a more innovative and dignifying ways. Universal justice, for example, is much cheaper, and more effective, than universal sniffing. Being able to do something does not entitle one to do so. After what we saw about recent leaks, imagine personal data falling in the hands of criminals!
And one last thing to remember: if you sacrifice your privacy today, you will be more prepared to give up the rest of your rights tomorrow.