Yes, exposing all our information without permission is bad. But blocking all superficial cookies and trackers, because you encountered adverts for a BBQ moments after googling for a new one – while our personal information (address, name, family, date of birth, passwords, emails,…) keeps getting requested and subsequently leaked every other minute, is an overcorrection. Can’t we protect our personal information without giving up the hyper customization the internet offers?
Let me admit that, like everyone else, I block all unnecessary cookies and permissions on all apps and websites. I have fallen down the rabbit hole of privacy, I’m only a couple of steps away from accessing the internet only through a virtual machine on a server in Iceland that I access only via a VPN and a Tor browser, running exclusively on a USB stick with Tails OS. (Iceland has great privacy protection laws).
But, I’m just weird like that.
I want to protect my identity and personal information. But I have no issue with receiving specific ads that cater to my weird quirks or latest google searches. As an entrepreneur, my online business heavily relies on the effectiveness of well targeted ads. The alternative (now our reality), is going back to a world of broad one-for-all type advertising. Car, beer and dating commercials galore!
Let’s be real
We can stop cookies and tracking all we want, but we will never be able to stop advertising. Unless people start actually paying for things online. So why not make it at least a little customized to our needs?
Although the aggregate of all our internet usage might be able to paint an accurate picture of the kind of person we are and in which part of the world we live, it doesn’t even come close to the actual real personal information that is out there.
Sim cards track our movements constantly, regardless of airplane mode and even with the phone turned off. Which has been used against several fugitives and the people present at the USA Capitol riots. ALL WiFi networks are listed on google-maps-esque sites with a scary exactness of the position of the router. When you create a WiFi hotspot on your phone, it automatically logs the location and can be found on those maps. Check this video that tells you why Snowden doesn’t use WiFi.
Governments like the EU force companies (banks, telecom providers,…) to ask for accurate personal details from their customers (Know Your Customer – KYC). But, those companies are not required to keep their security up to a high standard. Currently my personal information (name, address, phone number, email, date of birth, passwords…) has leaked several times from hacks to various platforms! Exposing me to possible hacks of my own email accounts, social media, payment providers, banks, SIM swapping, identity theft, fraud, blackmail,…
We are concerned about the wrong things
We are so afraid of being followed by ads. But we forget to protect our personal data that can actually be used against us. With your personal details, a hacker can call up your phone company, pretend to be you, bypass some security questions like
“What’s your date of birth? Where were you born? What are the last 4 digits of your bank account or credit card?…”
Having won over the customer service rep, the hacker can then ask for a replacement SIM card of your phone number, called SIM swapping. It allows another person to get access to your text messages, voicemail and phone calls without you knowing it. They use this to bypass security on other platforms. Like, when you login to Amazon or Facebook and the site texts you a code to your phone that you have to fill in on the website.
To make it even simpler for hackers, most people don’t change their passwords and/or login information. Using the same password for all social media accounts, email, banks,… Once one website is hacked, that information is available online for a few bucks. Someone with bad intentions can easily turn your entire life upside down.
As an individual you can protect yourself by getting a passwords manager and adopting a unique, random password for every account you create. You can step it up with randomized email accounts provided by sites like AnonAddy. You can start using pseudonyms instead of using your real name. But all this is like wearing inflatable armbands while in the middle of a storm in the middle of the pacific ocean, it will just make you stand out to the sharks.
Data collection can be our friend
Have you visited Facebook lately? Noticed how it is not as cool as it was before? Besides a change in culture, after all, it’s been over a decade; my hypothesis is that we’ve grown accustomed to algorithm picked media feeds, specifically catered to our interests (Youtube, Instagram, Pinterest,… all show you media from profiles you probably have never heard of). Facebook, can’t really do this. Since it is tied to your friend list, the quality of your feed is dependent on the quality of the posts of your friends.
I’ve realized this while using Pinterest. At first I followed people I knew and I saw a feed of things they pinned. But later on, Pinterest switched to showing me things picked by the algorithm, specifically fit to my tastes. At first I was confused, why am I not seeing my friends anymore? I followed cool people that had great taste! But after a few weeks/months, I grew accustomed to scrolling the front page, filled by the algorithm.
I was horrified when I accidentally landed on the friends feed page again. There was so little I found interesting! As if all of a sudden I realized my friends had awful taste! But in fact, I just grew accustomed to a product with higher potency.
Remember the world before the internet? Ever seen a billboard outside or a TV commercial lately? A random product shoved in your face that you have absolutely no desire for. Yea, that’s what we’re going to turn the internet into again. Instead of having advertisements shown, catering to whatever niche cat grooming ritual you have, Richard. We’re going to show everyone car, beer and dating adverts again. Regardless of whether or not you’re a drunken road hazard that has been unhappily married since high school, Richard! Actually, that might be amazing audience targeting.
Unless we find a way to protect people’s identities AND collect data about their interests, we will destroy one of the greatest economical superpowers for small businesses, start-ups, entrepreneurs, freelancers and influences we have yet seen.
All this, in the name of being spooked by an ad for a recent google search.
The wrong thing scares us. Ideally, we’d completely remove personal information from the internet and adopt a pseudonym standard where everyone’s name is in the same vein as “GeneralButtWipe68”. And allow tracking of internet usage in exchange for a more catered experience.
Institutions like banking or telecom that needs to actually know who you are in order to counteract money laundering, terrorism,… will have to be regulated and audited on their digital security. Even fined when breaches occur.
When Facebook leaked 350+ million users’ data, they didn’t give two shits. They didn’t even notify the affected individuals, let alone warn their entire platform of the breach. Users just had to be lucky to read it in the newspapers and figure it out for themselves if their data was part of the breach or not.
We shouldn’t be afraid of ads. We should be afraid of having to share our personal details with every site, service or product we encounter, without that information being supremely secured.