Internet Privacy in 2016: Does it Exist?

The short answer is no, not in its natural form. Wow, that was quick… are we done for the day? Not quite. The longer answer is yes, if you take charge of your privacy and fight to protect it.

No matter how mundane you think your search history is; the reality is that what you do and where you go online is worth big bucks to somebody else. Think about it. Very little is actually free (especially online) if companies providing "a free service" are not getting something out of the deal. To put it in perspective, Vegas doesn’t give gamblers free booze because they care about their thirst. Read on to discover some steps you can take to take your privacy back into your hands.

Why online privacy matters.

You have curtains on your windows, don’t you? You may not be doing anything weird in there, but still, you don’t want random people looking into your house. Why should your online activity be any different?

When President Bush signed the Patriot Act in 2001, Americans fell into two distinct camps. On one side, there were those who wanted to curtail personal online privacy and freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism. The common ideal based in this camp was "if there is nothing to hide, then there is nothing to worry bait". On the other side, there were those who did not believe sacrificing personal freedoms meant defeating terrorism, and these people detested the loss of Americans’ fundamental right to privacy.

Attitudes changed in 2013, when Edward Snowden leaked classified NSA information detailing exactly what kind of information the government had been collecting the past dozen years. Some thought the uproar was due to America’s change in leadership, but maybe out grade grew once Americans saw what the feds actually collected.Remember, in 2001, tip phones were still a thing, dial-up was king, and no one would have ever used the word texting as a verb.

Just the stats, Ma’am.

Even though most people today take more passive actions and stances on personal online security, when asked directly about privacy, people express very strong opinions about its importance. In a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center, adults answered a variety of privacy questions. These dealt with who should control their personal information, questions regarding government surveillance, and questions relating to their level of trust in how their data is handled.

93% of adults wanted control over who gets their information, and 90% wanted control over what information is collected. Going further into the question of who controls data online, only 9% of adults felt like they have a lot of control over their own data. Half of the respondents felt they had either not much or no control at all in how government and private businesses gather, analyze, and distribute their data.

How much do these same individuals trust the agencies they assume (oh…they do by the way) gather their data? Not much. In fact, only 6 % are "very confident" in the government’s ability to keep their data safe, with another 25% saying they are "somewhat confident". Trust in credit card companies is a bit higher, with 9% expressing high confidence and 29% claiming they are marginally confident.

With all this doubt and mistrust, you would think consumers would be protecting themselves in record numbers, right? Well, the reality is that they are not. Only about 10% have taken the steps to guard their online privacy, either through encryption, VPNs, or proxy servers.

Just how vulnerable is your data anyways?

Another short answer: a lot more vulnerable than you think. There is, of course, a longer answer, as always. Websites and marketing campaigns commonly front big bucks for data gathering actions. Collecting and compiling data for sale is its own industry as well, as this ZenMate article points out here. An online promotion for a 20% coupon? Just enter your zip code, age, and gender. Loyalty program application? That will only cost you information on your disposable income, name, age, address, email, and birthday. The amount of information you provide is actually incredible. By collecting this type of information, marketers know what kind of products to market to you, how much you can spend, whether you prefer male or female-oriented products, etc. etc. etc.

For most of these types of programs though, you only provide a few demographic items. However, it is not that difficult to aggregate a few data points into a full customer profile. Let us walk you through a hypothetical scenario. We are talking personal and household income, age brackets, buying habits, IP addresses, and email addresses. Soon, you realize how easy it is to decode even private information such as social security numbers. "But ZenMate," you say, laughing at the screen, secure in your knowledge of your information, "You can’t guess a random number."

"Oh, innocent reader," I say, "How I miss the naiveté of youth." Social security numbers seem random, but they indeed are not. The first three digits indicate state of origin. The second two indicate the location within the state. If you were born after 1980, congratulations! Listing your birthday and hometown on your Facebook profile just provided someone the first five digits of your SSN. Figuring out the last four is apiece of cake to the correct hacker or computer whiz. By the way, Canadians and New Zealanders have similar issues. Just because you might not live in the US doesn’t mean your data is protected as well.

Government or Business: Who should you fear more?

Why discriminate when you can fear both equally? True, the government regularly collects, stores, and requests information from social media sites such as Facebook, with or without court orders. True, they probably are not interested in your average Joe, but still, at any moment, the government can access your Facebook friends list, your twitter feed and followers, LinkedIn, even your recent google searches. The list is endless.

Thanks to the Privacy Act of 1974, the government does have some boundaries. However, business do not face the same regulations. Even if they promise not to sell your information, they wiggle through little loopholes where you approved sharing your data with strategic partners. Meaning? The door to aggregating all your information is opened. Assemble all those little data points, birthrates from one company, addresses from another, gender from another, etc, etc, et, and boom - everything they need is there thanks to those "strategic partners". Oh, and one last little tid-bit of information - although the government can’t necessarily collect all information on you, they can still buy it, which it does all the time.

Remember, collected data is vulnerable data. Even if the company or government in question does not intend to ever use it, it is out there, ready and waiting for someone to hack into that database and go crazy with your data. If you need some proof, just have a little research session of government cyber attacks.

How to protect your privacy.

If all of this doom and gloom has gotten to you, remember the opening paragraph: you have options. Most browsers allow you to surf in private and with a combination of strong privacy add ons and tools, you can have even more options. With ZenMate, you can have multiple security products including: ZenMate Web FireWall, our own Ad Blocker which, in our opinion at least, redefines the world of ad blockers; Secure VPN, our own VPN service with servers in over 20 countries worldwide; Secure Email; and finally, our IP Checker. So, take a cue from Happy Potter why don’t ya and don your own invisibility cloak. As always, if you don’t feel like going straight into ZenMate products, make sure you do your research, and do it in-depth! There are many security products out there, so be sure you know which one you want.

Let your friends know!