How would it make you feel if one day all the curtains and (toilet) doors were to disappear? If all of your emails and bank records were publicly displayed for everyone to see? Having all data at our fingertips is great, but it has a flip side. It has also never been easier to violate someone’s privacy.

Privacy has been considered a basic human right since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. For a long time it was treated as an afterthought by most. With several recent scandals concerning data leaks, this has changed. The European Union’s GDPR law of 2016 has made privacy impossible to ignore for companies that handle sensitive data.

The common rhetoric of “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” tries to convince us that privacy is merely something for criminals to hide behind. It implies that the ordinary, upstanding citizens – such as ourselves – have no rights to complain about privacy violations. But how would it make you feel if one day all the curtains and (toilet) doors were to disappear? If all of your emails and bank records were publicly displayed for everyone to see? How would you feel if you were to learn somebody planted a microphone in your house or a GPS tracker in your car? Naked and exposed. Violated.

What does privacy really mean? Simply put, privacy is the right to decide for oneself which information will be shared with whom. This is so very important, because without this guarantee we could never be ourselves.

When we know we’re being eavesdropped on, we behave differently. This is the so called “Chilling effect”. The same happens when we think our digital data may not be safe.

How is our privacy violated?

The invention of the internet made the world a hyperconnected place. It has never been easier to access knowledge or get in touch with people all over the world. Having all this data at our fingertips is great, but it has a flip side. It has also never been easier to violate someone’s privacy.

Online advertisements, analytics software, omnipresent social networks: they track our each and every online move, combine this data and sell it to the highest bidder. Sometimes it’s merely used to sell people this new flatscreen TV that they don’t really need. Other times, however, the motives are not as innocent:

  • Our data could be used to sway opinions in an effort to influence an election outcome.
  • Our data could be used to publicly shame.
  • Our data could used to get us fired from our jobs.
  • Our data could be used for identity theft and cause us a lot of trouble while criminals use it to hide behind.

All of this is could happen, but without most of us being aware of it. Sure, we agreed to some app’s terms and conditions, or clicked the big green button in some popup that mentioned privacy and cookies. But are we ever explicitly asked for permission to have our data used in ways that we could never predict?

What can we do to protect our privacy?

Unfortunately there’s not one universal solution to protect our privacy. Legislation like the GDPR helps, but in its current form is far from sufficient. Technological solutions like ad blockers help, but they can’t protect us from everything. Therefore it’s important for us to think about what products and services we use and what privacy policies those services and products have. Let’s all stay aware of what may impact our privacy and think before we use something.

What can companies do to protect the privacy of customers?

While it is important for consumers to pay attention to how their data is used by products and services, companies have their own responsibility in protecting their customers’ privacy.

The GDPR law has already provided some guidelines. However, there is no harm in going further than what is required by this law. When it comes to privacy, companies need to let people know they are collecting data and for what purpose and give people the ability to opt-in or opt-out. Furthermore, companies should be mindful of the data they ask of their clients and only ask for data that they really need.

Other things that are important for companies to think about are:

  • How/where will data be stored?
  • How is the data protected?
  • How will clients be notified should any data security be compromised?

In conclusion about privacy

Privacy is something that affects everyone. From people who use services, to the companies that provide the services. Companies need to be aware of their responsibility in protecting the privacy of their clients as best as they can and take what actions they can.

To ensure everyone’s privacy, we must work together.

There are tools that can help us protect our privacy, but they don’t replace this critical thinking.

So, read terms and conditions, stay away from awesome free tools as there is always a catch, and most importantly, don’t give your name and address to every company that asks for it on the internet, same as you wouldn’t to every person in the street.