The Value of Online Privacy and How You Can Defend Yours

But why are they so concerned about California’s privacy law so much? It’s even gotten to the point where they’re only willing to join talks for a federal privacy law if California’s law is first neutralized.

If you’ve read The New York Times recently, you may have read that the tech industry is trying to write its own privacy law . This is rich, especially since among these companies are Facebook and Google -- two companies that are infamous for their treatment of user privacy.

The reason for their concern is simple: the California law protects user privacy above all, not these companies’ interests.

These companies live on the personal data they collect from us. They use this data to make personalized ads that supply them the bulk of their yearly income. Just last year, Google made $95.4 billion, out of a total of $110.9 billion, on ad revenue alone.

It is this hunger for our personal data that drives these companies to great lengths to collect them. Haven’t you ever wondered why Facebook and Google are free to use? You may not know it, but you’re actually paying them something in return for their services. You’re paying them with something much more valuable than money -- your personal information.

Your personal information is what makes you who you are and these companies know this. Your personal information can be used to target you with personalized ads. While these personalized ads don’t necessarily succeed in luring us into buying their products, they do get annoying.

Something more concerning, though, is profiling. With our personal data, companies like Google can easily make accurate profiles of anyone who’s ever used their services. In 2009, their CEO, Eric Schmidt, has even been quoted as saying:

"If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. If you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines -- including Google -- do retain this information for some time and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act and it is possible that all that information could be made available to the authorities."

While I wholeheartedly support the notion that “you’ve got nothing to fear if you’ve got nothing to hide” and I do commend Google for its willingness to work with authorities to stop crimes, I am concerned about the fact that I don’t know who else gets access to my personal profile. Who else will these companies sell my information to?

This concern stems from the fact that hackers are also after our personal information for their own nefarious means. Just recently, BBC has reported that the health records of over 100 million users around the world were put in jeopardy when 30 bugs were found in the OpenEMR system by a cyber-security group called Project Insecurity.

While data breaches target larger enterprises, they aren’t the only reason for concern. Individuals could just as easily find their lives ruined by the malicious whims of bad actors looking to make a quick buck or to simply ruin one’s social standing.

“The Fappening”, the name given to the iCloud breach of 2014, was caused when a hacker broke into Apple’s system and posted nude photographs of various celebrities, mostly women, on 4chan. While his event no doubt tarnished the reputations of the celebrities who were part of it, it also showed that not even Apple was safe from hackers.

The most common way that hackers attack your privacy is by employing malware. This can be further classified into many types but their main purpose remains the same: obtain access to your data. Once a hacker gets hold of your data, he is then free to do whatever he wants with them.

Have you ever entered your banking credentials or credit card details into an online form? Maybe you’ve saved these details in your computer for safekeeping. Are you keeping confidential corporate information in your laptop or cell phone?

If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, you should be concerned about how privately you keep your data. You never know when a hacker targets your for a spear-phishing attempt.

Long story short: online privacy should be everyone’s concern.

It is because of my own concern for online privacy that I’ve listed these recommendations on how you can defend your online privacy from hackers, ad companies, and even your ISPs.

1. Get yourself the best VPN you can afford. A VPN not only hides your IP address but also keeps your personal data under wraps by encrypting them. Using a VPN, therefore, prevents hackers and ISPs from reading your online data and tracking your data back to you. It also blocks those annoying ads that keep popping up by not letting them target your real IP address in the first place.

2. The TOR (The Onion Router) works well with a VPN to protect your privacy. TOR does this by wrapping your data in three layers of encryption and sending them to three separate “hops” before they arrive at the intended server. Using TOR with a VPN means that your data get a fourth layer of encryption as well as any other security feature the VPN provides.

3. Let’s learn from “The Fappening” and not put any of our private photos on the internet. Turn off your device’s auto-backup if possible and make regular checks on your device’s backed-up data. You can never be too sure when it comes to your personal data.

4. Think about what you’re posting on social media. Maybe delete your phone or home number and address on your Facebook profile and make sure to never upload any private photos on these sites. Never share your banking or credit card information on social media sites, too.

5. Watch out for the security of each website you access. If it doesn’t have a green padlock, the word “Secure”, and the letters “https” before the URL, that site isn’t encrypted and you shouldn’t risk entering any of your personal data in any of that site’s forms.

6. Beware of free public Wi-Fi like the one at Starbucks. These public networks aren’t secure as you never know what data they may be logging. They’re also prime targets for MitM attacks which let hackers access your data by intercepting the unsecured Wi-Fi connection.

These recommendations haven’t failed me yet and I’m positive that they’ll help you defend your privacy as well.

John Mason is the founder of He holds an MSc in cyber-security from Northumbria University and has experience working as a security analyst for IBM.

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