Privacy Awareness Week Couldn’t Come at a Better Time

Published: May 15, 2017 - 9:00am EDT

Cyber security

Keeping sensitive information private has been a concern for people long before the Internet was invented. But now that so many parts of our lives are tied to networked digital devices, concerns surrounding online privacy have come to the forefront. That's why Privacy Awareness Week was started by the Asia-Pacific Privacy Authorities (APPA) in 2006: to get people from all walks of life to learn about the issues that affect their personal privacy, and what potential impacts these issues could have on their lives.

So what is Privacy Awareness Week?

Privacy Awareness Week is an annual, week-long initiative to encourage the hosting and promotion of events that raise awareness about the importance of protecting the privacy of personal information, on both personal and institutional levels. It takes place in May of this year, though dates vary by country.

Why does privacy – especially online – matter?

Privacy Matters poster

One of the biggest issues of Internet privacy involves Internet companies (like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and many more) masking the true cost of using their services, often by offering them "for free". The "cost" is the collection of data on how you use these services, which you often implicitly allow just by using them. That data then gets stripped of personally-identifying features, packaged, and sold to Internet marketing firms, which then target you with specific advertisements while you're surfing the web.

The question that has often arisen from this is: is it legal – or at least ethical – for Internet companies to be able to collect information about what you do online and create a "digital profile" of you, all by simply saying that you're allowing them to do so by using what they offer? In the United States, this question has recently become even more urgent, and for a rather worrying reason.

What's going on with regards to online privacy in the US?

Between October of 2015 and December of 2016, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) drafted a new set of policies commonly known as the Open Internet Order. These were a set of protections that were designed to prevent American Internet service providers from artificially slowing down or speeding up their users' Internet connections, based on what websites they visited or how much money they paid.

Part of the Open Internet Order was a host of new privacy rules that would have forced American ISPs to clearly indicate what information they were collecting from their customers, as well as to whom they sold or otherwise gave this information. These rules would have also allowed Internet users to opt out of the collection of certain information, as well as required ISPs to get explicit consent from their customers to collect their more sensitive information (such as financial details or web browsing histories).

The FCC's new online privacy rules were supposed to come into force in March of this year. Unfortunately, this was delayed when Senate Joint Resolution 34 – a motion to repeal these rules – passed the Senate on March 23rd with a 50-to-48 vote. A week later, on March 28th, the House of Representatives passed SJR34 as well, with a 215-to-205 vote. President Donald Trump signed the motion into law on April 3rd.

The demise of the FCC's broadband Internet privacy rules means that America's biggest ISPs (such as Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable) are still freely able to collect – and, potentially, sell anonymized versions of – Americans' Internet activity data, just like many other big Internet companies. And they can continue to do so with little accountability to either their users or the American government. Regrettably, this means Americans (and everybody else, for that matter) must take protecting their online privacy into their own hands, which is why Privacy Awareness Week matters right now, more than ever.

4 ways to participate in Privacy Awareness Week

1. Adjust your online privacy settings, and take protective measures.

There are several different ways to protect and increase your privacy online. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use unique, complex passwords for each account that you set up on the Internet. Also, consider changing your passwords every so often.
     
  • Know how to clear an Internet browser's cache, cookies, and history, and do this every once in a while.
     
  • Try using "Private Mode" on your Internet browser so that any new additions to the cache, cookies, or history will be deleted when you end your browsing session.
     
  • If your Internet browser has a "Do Not Track" function that sends out requests for websites to not collect your information, enable it.
     
  • Try using a proxy server website to funnel your Internet traffic, so the proxy website gets tracked instead of you.
     
  • If you need to find something online, try using a private search engine (like DuckDuckGo.com) that doesn't track your search terms or your computer's Internet address.
     
  • Adjust the privacy settings on your social network accounts to better control who can contact you or see your posts.
     
  • Try using a private web browser or virtual private network (VPN) to fool would-be trackers into thinking that you're using a different web browser, or even using your computer from a different part of the world. Learn about private web browsers here.

2. Learn about your country’s legislation on privacy and how it protects you.

Different countries have varying rules concerning privacy, both online and off. Visit the government website for your country, territory, and/or region (we've provided a few below) to see how the laws of the land protect your privacy – and how they may not.

As we've seen in the United States, privacy laws are subject to change with government activity, so keep an eye on what's going on in the various legislatures that affect your community. Better yet, contact your local government representative and ask that they take steps to protect your privacy rights. For example, encourage them to introduce or vote for measures that increase privacy protections, or vote against motions – like SJR34 – that aim to restrict privacy.

3. Participate in an event to help spread awareness about online privacy in your home, classroom, or workplace.

A small but meaningful thing you can do to increase awareness surrounding online privacy is to talk about the subject with people you interact with every day. Set up a meeting with your loved ones, students, or co-workers to discuss various privacy-related topics. Examples include:

  • Who might be watching what you do online (e.g. individuals, companies, or governments)
     
  • Where and when your online activity is private, public, or in-between
     
  • How common online anonymity conventions, such as generic user names, may not always fully hide who you really are
     
  • How many Internet services (especially social networks) can be used "for free," but end up costing you in terms of online privacy
     
  • How things you say or do online that were intended to be private can become public if other people choose to share them, potentially damaging your (or the company's) reputation

4. Join the privacy conversation on social media.

Privacy Matters - social media poster

Other great avenues for spreading awareness about the importance of online privacy are your social network accounts. Share news stories about privacy-related issues, advice on how to protect one's privacy on the Internet, or just general reasons why safeguarding online privacy matters to you (or all of us) with your followers and contacts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google Plus, and so on. Be sure to use the hashtag "#PrivacyMatters" so that even more people can find your posts and join the discussion!

Who can I contact if I have questions about privacy in my country?

Different countries have specific government employees or departments in charge of managing and enforcing national privacy laws. The main ones for countries that have participated in Privacy Awareness Week can be found in the table below. Talk to these people if you have further questions about how privacy is (or is not) protected in your country, or how you can participate in Privacy Awareness Week and other privacy-promoting initiatives.

Where can I learn more about protecting my privacy online?

There are plenty of resources on the Internet that discuss why (online) privacy is important, and how you can protect yours. Here are a few to get you started:

Introduction to Internet Privacy – TechBoomers

A beginner's course on protecting your privacy on the Internet. It explains who and what can compromise your online privacy, what websites do (or don't do) to protect your privacy, and what you can do to avoid having your online activity tracked.

Privacy and Security in the Internet Age – Wired

David Gorodyansky, co-founder of Internet privacy software company AnchorFree, discusses how surges in both the creation and theft of data on the Internet between 2013 and 2014 have brought issues of online privacy and security to the attention of citizens, companies, and governments worldwide. He also argues that, as more people gain access to the Internet and more aspects of our daily lives become reliant on the Internet, governments and online security companies around the world need to develop Internet security and privacy policies and solutions that are easy for everyone to understand and use.

Internet Privacy 2017: What You Need to Know – Ad Age

In the wake of the cancellation of the FCC's online privacy rules, digital technology expert Shelly Palmer explains what has (and hasn't) changed regarding online privacy in the United States, why people are for or against these kinds of changes, and what the future might hold for Internet privacy legislation. He also touches on what you can do in the meantime to protect your online privacy, as well as to shape the conversation around protecting people's privacy on the Internet.

 

By scrapping the FCC's broadband Internet privacy rules, the American government has signalled that it isn't very committed to protecting its citizens' Internet activities from being monitored, at least for the time being. But that doesn't mean there aren't other groups out there who are committed to protecting people's privacy on the Internet, or that you shouldn't make that commitment yourself. So, during Privacy Awareness Week, take some time to get informed about when the things you do on the Internet are or aren't private, how your country's laws do or don't protect your online privacy, and what options are available for stopping (or at least hindering) the tracking of your digital footprints.

Most importantly, however, be sure to share and discuss these issues of online privacy with your family, friends, co-workers, and even government representatives. Privacy on the Internet is everyone's business, and it's going to take all of us to get it right.

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