• Dr. Timothy Smith

Your Privacy and One Step You Can Take to Protect It

Internet Privacy

The Constitution of the United States of America does not call out privacy explicitly as an inalienable right, but the law protects our privacy based on a series of amendments to the Constitution. The 1st Amendment protects the privacy of our beliefs. The 3rd Amendment protects our privacy by prohibiting soldiers quartering in our homes in time of peace. The 4th Amendment further extends our privacy protection by prohibiting unlawful search and seizure. Finally, the 14th Amendment is construed by legal scholars to generally protect the rest of the privacy not covered in the earlier amendments. Privacy in the United States and more generally in the Western world is a big deal. The sanctity of our homes, our bodies and beliefs form the basis of wide ranging laws and customs in our society. In fact, a core tenet of our country’s Constitution is the protection of private property, and in the early decades of the US you could not claim all the rights and privileges of being a citizen unless you owned private property. That would not change until 1830s and only for white men at that point. The privacy of our bank accounts, tax returns, health records, and even our SAT scores legally need to be released by us and are not public record. In a terrific article titled “Privacy and Human Behavior in the Age of Information,” published in Science back in January 2015, Alessandro Acquisti et al declare,

“If this is the age of information, then privacy is the issue of our times.”

Mainly, privacy entails the protection of individuals, groups and their information from being observed by uninvited parties. Now, in the Information Age, privacy appears to be eroding at a tremendous rate in part due to our own actions through the internet especially through social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, by our actions and behaviors online, and through identity theft. We celebrate our birthdays by posting pictures online, we mourn our losses and cheer our victories for the world to see online. Furthermore, browsing the web today exposes a great deal of information about you not only to the sites you visit but also third parties interested in knowing everything about you. Because online ads represent nearly half of the $220 billion that will be spent on advertising this year alone, there is stiff competition for your attention. It follows that better ad targeting can be achieved with hitting users that are most likely to buy specific products. Ad targeting is driven by user profiles built by watching what you do online. Every time you run a search or browse around website clicking on some shoes you like or a new chainsaw that you want. Companies are paying attention to your behavior. That is why the next time you log on to the internet it is no coincidence that you are inundated with advertisements for shoes and chainsaws. Now just feeding hungry advertisers may seem like a small price to pay, but others may want to track your activity to know when you will be on vacation, leaving your home more open to robbery, or you may be more likely to be scammed by online conmen if they learn all about your behaviors online.

In spite of the fact so much of your activity on line gets consumed by third parties, there are internet privacy laws protecting some of your activity. For example, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has prohibited internet service providers (ISPs) from selling your internet activities to third parties. ISPs such as AT&T and Verizon are the companies that connect you to the internet. Since they make all the connections from you to the internet they can see and store everything that you do online; they have the most privileged of view on you online. That makes for a true treasure trove of information about you for which advertisers and perhaps other unsavory parties would pay for handsomely. However, that may change since Congress just passed a bill last week that will allow for the first-time ISPs to sell user data without user permission. The president has still to sign the bill into law, but most anticipate that he will sign it soon. Soon AT&T, Comcast and others will realize a new and valuable portion of their business model—selling your online behavior.

If you care about your privacy online, you are not without recourse. Apart from internet abstinence or going into the murky world of the dark web, you can use what is called a virtual private network, or VPN, to hide your online activity from prying eyes even from your internet service provider. Think of a VPN as having a direct private line to the websites you visit that no one can eavesdrop on. A VPN uses a combination of encryption, private computers and some cleaver tricks to create a private network over the public internet. Without a VPN, your computer talks to other computers to do searches and gain access to websites using plain computer language when you're on the internet. Because the internet is public, interested third parties can easily listen in on your internet activities, and they totally understand plain computer language. However, a VPN uses encryption to mask your activities. Encryption simply means that your data is converted into secret code that others cannot read if they don’t have the secret key to unlock the code, and with a VPN, only your computer can unlock the secret code. In a VPN, your searches and website clicks are first encrypted and sent to the private computers of the VPN provider. The VPN computers interact with the worldwide web so you don’t have to. They do your searches and clicks and then send your information back to you in secret code. The outside world only sees the VPN provider’s computers but never your computer. Using a VPN anonymizes all your online activity ensuring your internet privacy.

If setting up a VPN appeals to you, you have two options. If you are a do-it-yourself type person that is comfortable changing some of the settings on your computer, you can find online detailed instructions on how to set up your own VPN using tools already installed on your computer. You can check out helpful videos, or you can read instructions online. Just figure out what type of operating system you have and you will find many resources online. Furthermore, a nice aspect of the do-it-yourself option is that it is free. On the other hand, if setting up a VPN sounds complicated, there are many VPN providers that for a fee will set up a VPN for you. Many of these providers will charge a monthly or yearly fee, but they will take care of all the details for you. Either way, you can finally claw back some of your privacy. Given the state of eroding privacy today and in the decreasing protections of online privacy, VPN lets you better protect yourself and your privacy online. I hope you feel more empowered knowing that you are not helpless, and you can reclaim some of your privacy in an increasingly more public world.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high-level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback and in kindle format here.