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The 5 Most Common Online Privacy Myths, Debunked

MUO 10/19/2022 Damir Mujezinovic
© Provided by MUO

In the broadest sense of the term, online privacy (otherwise known as internet privacy or digital privacy) refers to the protection of data that is shared via the World Wide Web.

Everyone knows that tech companies collect that data, but there are still some misconceptions that should be refuted. So here are some of the commonly-held beliefs that you simply shouldn't believe...

1. Nobody Cares What I Do Online

"I am neither a whistleblower nor an activist. No one cares what I, a regular citizen, do online." That is how the thinking goes, but it's completely wrong. Everything you do on the internet matters. The search terms you use, the web pages you visit, and the choices you make all play a role in what you are being exposed to online.

It's probably happened to you multiple times already: you mention an item or an upcoming event to a friend, and then see an advertisement related to it later in the day. This doesn't necessarily mean social media giants like Facebook are listening to your conversations and serving ads based on what you say—they collect so much data about you that they have no need to do that, even if they could.

Based on what they know about you, tech giants' algorithms cannot just predict your next steps, but actually influence and manipulate your behavior. In fact, your data is so invaluable to them that it sits at the core of their business strategies. So yes, everyone actually cares what you do online.

2. Security and Privacy are One and the Same

When someone describes a product or a service as secure and encrypted, most people assume this also implies that same product or service is private. But that is not actually the case. In reality, security does not equal privacy at all.

For example, Google's Gmail is perfectly secure. It has never suffered a major breach, and it protects users with a solid and secure encryption protocol called Transport Layer Security (TLS). But it's far from private. Google collects all sorts of data about you, and automatically personalizes ads based on what it knows. In short, privacy-focused Gmail alternatives exist for a reason.

To quickly find out what Google knows about you, launch Gmail, click your profile icon, and navigate to Manage your Google Account. From there, enter Data & Privacy, then click Ad personalization. When you scroll down, you will see that Google has more-less successfully figured out your age, sex, professional interests, hobbies, and so on.

In sum, there are plenty of online services that are secure, but far from private. And while it is true that security and privacy go hand in hand, they are most definitely not one and the same.

3. Companies Have to Respect My Privacy if Their TOS Says So

"We respect your privacy and are committed to protecting your data." You see reassuring slogans like that all the time. More often than not, these ambiguous statements mean whatever the legal team that came up with them wants them to mean.

If you really want to know how any given company is treating your personal data, you need to read through its terms of service and privacy policy very carefully. And even that is not enough sometimes, being that most such documents are difficult to read through, contain a lot of legalese, and are otherwise full of carefully-worded disclaimers that are meant to protect a company from lawsuits.

It goes without saying that few have the time to parse and take apart a 10-page privacy policy before downloading an app, but it's always a good idea to do a bit of research about a product or a service before using it. Of course, it is also critical to understand how data privacy works and be proactive about protecting it.

4. I Can't Be Identified if I Don't Share Personal Information

Even those who aren't too careful about their online privacy would be reluctant to share personal information such as their address, name, phone number, or bank account details with strangers. But can you be identified if you don't actually share info about yourself via the internet? The answer is yes.

In theory, pretty much everyone who uses the internet can be identified through de-anonymization, which is the process of matching anonymized data with publicly-available information. In practice, you already have what's known as a digital fingerprint, or unique information about your device, system, and browser that separates you from others.

Avoiding invasive apps, using a private browser, and hiding your real IP address with a VPN can certainly help protect against fingerprinting, but it's important to keep in mind that you can be identified no matter how seemingly careful you are.

5. If You've Done Nothing Wrong, You Have Nothing to Hide

What is the harm in voluntarily giving up some privacy to use a digital product free of charge? This is a perfectly legitimate question that personifies a sentiment shared by many, which is: if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to hide.

This argument falls apart under basic scrutiny. After all, if you've got nothing to hide, why are you protecting your accounts with passwords? Why not let everyone read your private WhatsApp conversations and emails, or view your search history? Because you don't want to give up your privacy.

Irrespective of where you stand philosophically, there are tremendous cybersecurity risks associated with privacy breaches, starting from identity theft and fraud. The idea that it is okay to put your data in the hands of an unaccountable corporation or an authoritarian government is simply wrong, no matter how you look at it.

Privacy Matters: Take Steps to Protect It

Data is collected from you for a reason: it is extremely valuable. You can either give up that data (and your privacy along with it), or take steps to protect it.

But even in this age of ubiquitous surveillance and global interconnectedness, there are things you can do to protect yourself and your personal information. At the end of the day, it all boils down to cultivating safe habits, because online privacy is also about knowing what not to do.

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