The right to privacy was indispensable to our country’s founders. That right is contained or implied throughout first ten amendments in our founding document: The Bill of Rights. Those privacy rights have been upheld and protected throughout our history.
Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that police must get a warrant before seizing sensitive location information stored by cellphone companies. The ruling overturned a burglary conviction of a defendant whose movements were tracked over 127 days. The detailed GPS tracking without a warrant, the Court ruled, was a violation of the defendant’s personal privacy rights.
The ruling put the brakes on government surveillance
In the aftermath of the ruling, the ACLU agreed: “If the government had its way, virtually none of our sensitive information held by tech companies would enjoy the privacy rights guaranteed by the Constitution.” Without that ruling, the consequences of government intrusion and surveillance could have been far-reaching. The decision, the ACLU argued, “Provides a groundbreaking update to privacy rights that the digital age has rendered vulnerable to abuse by the government appetite for surveillance.”
That surveillance is made easier by the proliferation of cellphones leaving personal data everywhere on the web. People have become dependent on the convenience and possession of connected devices. Those devices, in turn, have become almost indispensable to participating in the business of our daily lives.
Threats go beyond the government
As our lives move online, threats to our personal privacy rights come not only from the government. Corporations and marketers also collect our information—anonymous or otherwise—and use it for their benefit and without our knowledge or permission.
Of course, there are times when we give away our absolute right to privacy. We tolerate traffic surveillance cameras in exchange for safety. We willingly disclose our credit card account data for daily purchases. We agree to have our photo taken for a driver’s license. We have the option to decline, but we need to drive.
So, our right to privacy is only absolute in the sense that we voluntarily relinquish anonymity to either receive a benefit or to protect the rights of everyone. Those compromises accumulate into the massive amount of big data that fuels modern ecommerce. The digital world has become a place where personal privacy has been overwhelmed by the technology of the information age.
Data collectors have a role in personal privacy
So, in one sense, our right to privacy is fungible—that is, we exchange it for something else that has value. That fungibility, however, comes with an obligation on the part of the organization collecting the data. Service agreements frequently include an assertion on the part of the vendor that the purchaser’s personal information will be protected and will not be sold or distributed.
Those obligations have the force of law in both the financial and medical sectors. Two examples: The Gramm-Leach-Baily Act protects consumer privacy. The HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) provides stiff penalties for compromising personal health information.
Bad actors take away our absolute right to privacy.
Then there are those who use their own anonymity to prey on the privacy of others. In the shark-infested waters of the worldwide web, protecting personal privacy has to go beyond expecting good behavior of data consumers. If we want to stay safe and protect our identity and privacy, we have to look after ourselves and use the tools available to protect our personal privacy.
Adopting a siege mentality
The physical container of our privacy is the device we use to reach out for information and services. Our first lines of defense on a computer, for instance, are the firewall, virus detection, and system passwords.
We must adopt a siege mentality. The “barbarians” are at the gate, and if they can’t break down the door with a battering ram, they’ll go “phishing” through your email web connection or use other social subterfuges to get you to voluntarily compromise your privacy.
Browsing can be hazardous
Then there are the inherent privacy vulnerabilities of your web browser. (See this blog on Privacy Browsers Compared.) Your browser is like a tunnel to the wild. When you browse unprotected and in the open, your internet service provider can:
- monitor all your browsing activity, gather it up and sell it
- broadcast your location to those wishing to track your business
- compromise your online security through poisoned links, bots, and viruses
Worse, when you log on to an unprotected public network, you are vulnerable to surveillance, hackers, and man-in-the-middle attacks; to wit:
- Surveillance can be as benign as tracker cookies, or as invasive as recording everything you do on the web.
- Hackers can also compromise websites with malware downloads to wreak havoc on your system.
- Man-in-the-middle attacks can run interference between you and a third party, or plant malware to steal all the private data on your computer.
In fact, the aforementioned man-in-the-middle attack can lure you to a fake local network or bogus website with an authentic-looking Starbucks logo. Once you are there, the hacker owns your identity.
Raise the drawbridge with VPN
You can protect your privacy with a virtual private network connection. A VPN provides an encrypted connection between you and your server. Hackers see only the gibberish of encryption go elsewhere for easier targets.
In addition to the privacy of encryption, a VPN protects your privacy by:
- Masking your IP address. You can choose a VPN server in a different location.
- Bypassing geo-blocking. The rerouting of your VPN connection allows you to sign on to websites that would ordinarily be out of bounds—Netflix local programming, customer pricing restricted to local areas, etc.
- Circumventing net censorship. The internet was designed for universal access. A government might wish to keep its citizens away from controversial or politically unflattering web sites. A VPN bypasses net censorship through the aforementioned IP address.
James Madison, one of the drafters of our Bill of Rights wrote, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary…” If the world were populated with universally good people—which it isn’t–our indispensable right to privacy would protect us against snoopers, intruders and online thieves.
So, we must take positive steps and accept responsibility that always accompanies any right. We must run deceptive interference against those who don’t respect our privacy. Someone once said, “If you want respect, get a dog.” The takeaway here is that if you want to protect your personal privacy, shore up your devices and use a VPN when you sign on to the Internet.