A Global Lack of Privacy

Zara Raindrop
May 20, 2018 · 7 min read

In this blog post, looking at the implications of living in a digital world, I will be investigating the times’ things don’t go as planned and who is to blame. This is an idea our class were introduced to during ‘Topic E: The Individual’.

Due to my background studying Computer Science, my opinion, prior to group discussions, was strongly in favour of software developers and owners of the digital element being the ones to blame if anything should go awry. However, after seeing the results of a small poll during our seminar, I became aware that other peoples opinions were very different.

Finding this difference in views interesting, I have decided to analyse a few controversial events in the digital world to see how they affect those involved and what it means for us living in an online world.

A screenshot of the homepage for Ashley Madison (May 2018)

In August 2015, Ashley Madison, a controversial website, was hacked. The information of it’s registered users was leaked to the general public. This included names, emails and credit card details. The Ashley Madison website enabled married users to be paired up and begin a relationship outside of their marriage.

The release of users details lead to vast numbers of divorces, individuals being blackmailed, and numerous careers abruptly ending. As Rick Thomas explains, the consequences of the hack lead him “to think about everything he might be about to lose”. The situation raises the idea that our privacy is never guaranteed online. None of the users signing up for the website would have considered this would be a possible outcome. Not only can we be unsure of what our online actions may now lead to in the real world, but it raises the question of who is to blame for the events of a leak like this.

Taking the four key parties who may be to blame when there is a breach of data such as with the Ashley Madison hack, my initial response is to blame Ashley Madison themselves. This is because, when signing up for a website a user is guaranteed and/or promised a level of privacy. Every website includes a privacy policy explaining exactly how they will use data provided by a user. This implies that the company will provide a certain level of security on the information they gather. If their security is not sufficient enough to prevent a hack then the company have neglected their duty to protect their users’ information. In the case of Ashley Madison, at the time of the hack, they were guaranteeing their users a “100% discreet service”.

I was surprised to find that a majority of my class pointed the blame to the individual who signed up. I believe a significant reason for this would be for the morality of the website itself. However, it did make me consider the number of people who will not have read the privacy policy before signing up to the website. Interestingly, the Ashley Madison website is still live so I decided to take a look at their statement on the privacy of their users. They have updated their policy since the hack:

A screenshot from the Ashley Madison Privacy Policy (May 2018)

Within the statement, there is a clause which states they will share some information with third parties…

This Privacy Policy does not cover such third parties’ use of the data

This only complicates matters. How do we know which companies now have our information? Will we have to read all of their privacy policies too? What if one of the third parties get hacked?

These questions make it scary to use any sort of digital medium which we are required to share personal information. From an analytical standpoint, my opinion tends to agree with my peers because users were misled in how they believed their data would be used. It seems we can never be sure that a company will protect our data whether they promise to or not.

Another challenging aspect which makes it difficult to isolate who may be to blame for a privacy breach, is the difference between a leak and a hack. ‘Hack’ implies an external party breaks through the security of a company and steals data. Leak implies someone who has permission to access any data shares it with the public. It is easier to blame a hacker because they are ‘active’ in their attempts to steal users data. However, when data is leaked, it tends to be an attempt at whistleblowing on an immoral company (or policy) by someone who has, or had, previously worked there.

The logo for Cambridge Analytica (Source)

This leads me to the most recent, and possibly largest, privacy scandal of the 21st-century. We all like to share elements of our lives online and for most of us, Facebook is our go-to social media platform. In mid-March of 2018 however, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had been harvesting data from over 50 million users to categorise them, based on their opinions and personalities, so they could target advertising in an attempt to sway the 2016 US presidential election.

Permission Request from Facebook third-party apps — by Business Insider (Source)

Interestingly, Facebook did not break any of their privacy rules, due to a loophole in their systems, which allowed third-party apps to access a users data alongside their friends’ public data.

The controversy has sparked a huge debate in the morality and the rules surrounding users data privacy. It caused a large number of the general public to worry about what they are posting online and who has access to that information. Another difficulty for the online world is that we are unsure whether our information is public or not. This was a problem during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, since many users did not know that their information was actually being posted publicly.

One of the most notable whistleblowers is Edward Snowden. In 2013, Snowden leaked information to the media about the extent of tracking and data collection various governments do in the name of public safety. There was a huge outcry from the public when they found they were being unknowingly tracked, traced and watched by their own governments.

These hacks, leaks and revelations imply that living in a digital society is risky and unpredictable. It’s safe to assume that nothing put online is private anymore. Although we can’t live our lives hiding from technology and attempting to keep all our information as private as possible, It’s wise to think carefully about the things we do share online because we never know what the consequences may be if someone else gets their hands on our information.

Reflection

This module has really helped me to understand and evaluate the digital world we live in today. It has opened me up to points of view which I otherwise would not have considered. The module has also shown me the extent to which we rely on technology in a digitally connected society.

Our first session allowed us to look at the internet as a whole; how it connects us, the speed it enables communicating, the pro’s and con’s, and who controls the way we use the internet. This was also our first introduction to the other students in our class.

After reading the material prior to the session, I had some opinions on the topic. Many of these were challenged by my peers during our seminar. It was interesting to hear points of view which had not occurred to me. This has given me a more rounded view of the topic — something I welcomed through the duration of the module, due to the fact it made me think carefully about how a particular topic may present itself differently to someone else.

The engagement topic magnified how much of the digital world is dedicated to marketing. Recognising how marketing has changed with technology growth, gave me new (and slightly worrying) perspectives on what techniques may be used in the future.

In contrast, the DigiLab I attended, got me hands-on with some ‘retro’ tech alongside the latest from the gaming world (Wizdish ROVR). Having this clear contrast really expands the idea that we are moving very quickly in a world which is relatively new to us. This made me surprisingly concerned about where tech may lead us in the future. If we are unable to control certain aspects such as AI, who knows where the human race may end up?

This view was enhanced during the next two topics — ‘the Internet of things’ and ‘the individual’. I realized, even more than before, that I care greatly about the future of digital society. Recognizing this in enabling me to analyze my opinions taking a more objective view of ideas such as privacy versus safety, in an online world.

Week by week, I was impressed when challenged with fresh and interesting perspectives, based on my peers’ backgrounds and prior experience. I have learnt a lot from discussing these topics and analyzing them in depth over the course of the semester.

I’m pleased I opted to take this module. It has given me a fresh perspective on the digitally connected community that is the human race, who rely on the speed and scope of technology for day-to-day life. My opinions have been challenged in such a way that it has given me a greater awareness of other peoples viewpoints. I believe I have increased my capability to analyze and question my opinions before I share them with others. My capability to discuss and debate has developed over this semester thanks to group work and in-depth analysis of each topic and opinion that has been brought up.

Digital Society

Exploring how digital technologies shape society…

Digital Society

Exploring how digital technologies shape society: challenges, themes and implications. Featuring student and staff writers. Views expressed are those of their authors and not necessarily the University of Manchester.

Zara Raindrop

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Digital Society

Exploring how digital technologies shape society: challenges, themes and implications. Featuring student and staff writers. Views expressed are those of their authors and not necessarily the University of Manchester.