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Privacy Debates & Tools

1. Privacy

1.1 The definition of privacy

While privacy is to a certain extend a normative concept it can generally be seen as the ‘right to be left alone’, a right to a ‘private space’ separated from a public domain. Even though no universal definition of privacy exists, Alan Westin’s definition is widely accepted:

"(...) the claim of individuals, groups, or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others." (Westin 7)

Privacy is then about the control of personal information and consequently threats to ones privacy are about a potential loss over this control of personal information. This loss of control over information can occur both in the case of unauthorised access to ones information as well as after voluntary disclosure of private information.

1.2 The value of privacy

The 2013 Channel 4 Christmas speech was delivered by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who declared that "(...) privacy matters, privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be" ("Alternative Christmas Message"). In this sense a life without privacy is inconceivable because it is our right to privacy that enables us to be autonomous human beings, to explore our creativity, our psychological well being, to forge social relationships, to find intimacy and emotional release without the need to carry the social mask of public life.

1.3 The dilemma of privacy

However, as argued by professor (of Law and Legal Theory) Raymond Wacks, there are also several shortcomings of the concept of privacy. For instance privacy might make it more difficult for authorities to detect and prevent criminal activities such as domestic crime. Privacy also inhibits the free flow of information and as such can obstruct business efficiencies especially for those businesses operating in the service sector. Finally the withholding of an individual’s unflattering information for instance from a future employer could be regarded as deception.

1.4 Law & regulation

The above-mentioned dilemmas are also core-concerns when it comes to the regulation of privacy. For instance the alleged prevention of crime has led various governments of the post 9/11 era, in particular the United States to relax privacy regulation and to open up greater possibilities for state surveillance with the justification that it would be necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks. For instance the United and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act in short the USA PATRIOT Act as well as amendments of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act ECPA and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act FISA. These actions have lead to less juridical oversight in surveillance practices.

However privacy law and regulation differs between national jurisdictions. For instance many governments in continental Europe have put greater emphasis on the protection on individuals privacy rights than the United States or England. For instance French law incorporated the right to privacy in their constitution by amending Article 66 on individual freedom in 1995. Furthermore German law has incorporated three levels of privacy protection: the intimate, the private and the individual. While various international declarations and directives such as the 8th Act of the European Convention on Human Rights or the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights have sought to ameliorate these disparities these national differences exist and they have important implications for the regulation of privacy on the Internet.

"Everyone shall have the right to the free development of his personality in so far as he does not violate the rights of others or offend against the constitutional order or the moral code." (European Court of Human Rights)

2. Privacy debates

2.1 Big data

The main discussion about privacy on the Internet is related to Big Data and the web’s capacity to produce, store, aggregate and organize data about people’s activities, interactions and behaviour. At every moment, a huge amount of data is being produced as every use of the web is catalogued and organized for different types of analysis: "(...) the Internet has created unprecedented opportunities for people to produce and share data, interact with and remix data, aggregate and organize data" (boyd, "Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data").

Big Data evangelists argue that all this use of data is being used to build better products and services as well as to aid medical research. These practices would benefit consumers and the population at large. However, the transparency over what kind of data is being collected, how it is being tracked and how it is used still a big issue, especially when people realise the value (qualitative and quantitative) of this information for companies and governments. As time goes by, the possibilities of analysing the digital footprint of a person and get to complete and sensible personal information, what is called Personal Identifiable Information (PII), increases. The trust inherent within Privacy gets blurred on such web services that collect and use data indiscriminately in exchange of the use of their technology.

Neil M. Richards and Jonathan H. King, in an article of Stanford Law Review, present the three main paradoxes of Big Data and Privacy: "The Transparency Paradox" that refers to the controversial way most of the data is being collected; "The Paradox of Identity" about the amount of knowledge that companies start to have over the identity of individuals; and "The paradox of Power" concerning the possibilities of use of the information of Big Data in orders to control individuals, groups or the society in general.

"Just because data is accessible doesn't mean that using it is ethical." (boyd, "Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data")

2.1.1 Capturing Information

In a wide number of different ways, websites, tools and services in general are tracking the interactions of every user amongst their personal data. Simple and largely used tools such as Google Analytics make possible to track any website access and freely use it. Other more complex systems develop their own solutions of data capturing according to their needs and characteristics. The biggest point of controversy is the issue of the transparency in the collection and later use of it. Most of the services do not make clear to users what exactly is being captured and how it is used. Many services enable experiences to their users in which they have to give personal data or hold private conversations. The amount of trust that people put into these services is not small, but this amount of care does not necessarily have an equal return. This is mostly the case of Social Networks and Geo-located Media.

2.1.2 Social networks

The increasingly importance of social networks in everyone’s lives is a phenomenon that affect millions of people nowadays and the more its use becomes almost inevitable, the more the data they generate increases in value for whoever have access to it. Social networks are all about private life, from a simple Facebook Like on an artist’s page to the content of everyday Whatsapp conversations, the access to this data comes with a big ethic issue over how much exposure will be given to such a personal information. Although every social network comes with disclaimers and Terms of Use that usually transfers the responsibility to the user, it is a fact that people tend to trust the environment and open themselves in a closed ambient, also in order to better use the system.

“People seek privacy so that they can make themselves vulnerable in order to gain something: personal support, knowledge, friendship, etc.” (boyd, "Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data")

These companies have data related to personal lives of people, data that definitely the users would not make public if they could. And that is what they expect from these services.

2.1.3 Cookies

With the development of website publishing, even simple technologies such as cookies become part of the discussions about privacy. Used to identify returning users on websites and memorize personal preferences or shop cart functionalities, the cookies that provide third-party advertising services are the main targets of the debates about privacy. Ad serving platforms, such as AdSense">Google AdSense, are tracking the behaviour of users in different websites in order to deliver more effective ads. According to the website AllAboutCookies, "the preferences are not consciously or explicitly set by the user but modeled after the user's browsing history, page viewing, and ad clicking history."

2.1.4 Geo-located media

As the extension of digital media increases, new debates over privacy are necessary. Formerly non-existing services are created and, with them, new ethical issues arise. The recent omnipresence of GPS systems in our daily lives through mobile phones and the constant interest to mapping and gathering information about space (for example Google Street View or drones with cameras) leads to the discussion about: what type of information is being generated about where we physically are?

Many debates have been going on in order to preserve people’s spatial privacy. These new tools not only monitor the behaviour of its users in the system, tracking their interactions within it, but extend their influence to track their behaviour outside of the main experience and exposing people’s location without any permission (in the cases of Google Street View’s and drones’ images).

"Struggles over privacy and the geoweb are transformative in both realms – they constitute new objects of privacy concern, and reconstitute the roles and relationships of civil, state, and corporate actors in the creation, release, and withholding information." (Elwood and Leszczynski 2010)

2.2 Vulnerability of the Web

Apart from the use of personal data by companies who provide services, another threat to Privacy are unexpected viruses and hacker invasions. In theory, any system can have bugs and vulnerability that can lead to leaks of personal data such as credit card numbers, email and social network’s passwords or personal content like videos and photos. Problems on websites’ databases and systems of cloud storage can be extremely harmful for users. Well known cases are the Heartbleed Bug, a flaw on OpenSSL cryptographic software library that forced thousands of users to change their passwords, and the leak of celebrities’ nude pictures, hacked from Apple’s iCloud. The security of a company’s data is one of the most important issues in any corporation and must be a work in progress. New technologies to better protect the data and defend it from invasions are constantly being developed as well as educational efforts in employees and stakeholders to prevent that human error lead to data damage.

Hackers are not only the villains in this story: some companies are giving bounties for the hacker who will find a bug on their website. A recently developed company, HackerOne, has been really successful in doing this, working with Twitter, Yahoo and MailChimp.

2.3 User agency

One other question that should be addressed when discussing privacy is the question about user agency. How much agency does a user still have while engaging in a platform such as Facebook, or just browsing around on Google? In which extent can the user decide what will be out in the open or not? As mentioned before, when entering a specific platform, users are asked to agree with the Terms of Use. Without acceptance of these uses, it will not be allowed to enter the platform. This is the first constrain that users experience: they will have to give up personal information in order for them to engage with the platform. For example, "Facebook's Terms of Use site explicitly states that they can allow other service providers to access information", as said by Devin Redmon in a blogpost for Wired. According to Redmond, users should align their expectations and activity on Facebook and other social media networks, because they have agreed to forfeit significant privacy. He states that using social media comes with the price of giving up personal information: "If that price is too high or too uncomfortable, then the solution is simple, a user can choose not to participate on Facebook or other social networks". Of course this is true, but the notion of ‘utility by giving up information’ is not only applicable to social networks. Besides, social norms are pressuring people to participate in these networks, giving them almost no other choice.

Think about the EU cookie law: it is now for each website mandatory to state at first visit that it is collecting cookies, and the website needs the consent of the user to collect these cookies. The goal of this law is to make people aware of what is being tracked when they are on websites, and give them a choice to allow it or not. However, in practice, this law does not really improve the privacy of users, as the website is only readable and usable when they allow the cookie collection. The law may create awareness, but it does not help users improve their privacy. So, it seems that users don’t have a lot agency when it comes to privacy online. However, there are some strategies being applied by users to protect their privacy to some extent, within the given constraints of the platforms.

According to boyd, teens have a specific usage of social networks in order for them to maintain their privacy. She states that teens are both very public and very private at the same time ("Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data"). This means that they choose to share certain information, but think about what they are sharing and what not. Privacy in this way is what they keep off the social network, in a sense it is the time between the posts that creates their privacy: "(..) in its own way, the rise of publicness has allowed for privateness to become its own trend" ("Why Privacy Is Exactly Thriving Online"). Also, some teens use 'whitewalling', posting to Facebook very personal details, but then quickly delete everything, leaving a blank timeline (boyd, "What Is Privacy?").

"Wanting privacy is not about needing something to hide. It’s about wanting to maintain control." (boyd, "Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data")

3. Privacy tools

3.1 Tools for anonymous web browsing

  • Disconnect.
    By monitoring and blocking more than 2,000 trackers is a browser extension that helps users control their browsing history. Developed by an ex-Googler and an attorney to keep online user data private during web search,’s anti-tracking and anti-ad tracking has expanded privacy functions to other areas. is open source and pay what you want software (free or make a donation).

  • Safe Shephard.
    Safe Shepherd constantly scans the Internet and private databases, looking for your personal information. When we find a company publicizing or selling your personal information, we submit an opt-out request on your behalf, which deletes your record. If a website doesn't allow us to automatically remove your information, we'll provide straightforward instructions for how to handle the exposure.

  • Anchorfree.
    Every time you surf the Web, you expose yourself and your devices to multiple online threats and risks; Hackers could steal your passwords & financial information and the sites you visit may contain malware. Hotspot Shield VPN software uses advanced encryption technology to secure your browsing session, detect and blocks malware, and enables you to access your favourite content from anywhere. You can even bypass geo-restrictions to unblock Facebook, YouTube"> unblock YouTube, or unblock any website in countries that censor content. The Hotspot Shield VPN service also protects your IP address, enabling you to surf the Web anonymously and privately.

  • Tor.
    Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.

  • Anonymizer.
    With Anonymizer's personal VPN service, you can connect with an unlimited bandwidth & speed, access Wi-Fi hotspots securely, surf sites discretely and anonymously. It will protect you against identity theft, masks your real IP address & location and will let you view online content without censorship. Anonymizer will never view, track, or keep logs of the websites you visit according to their site.

  • Cyberghost.
    Cyberghost is a fast, simple and efficient way to protect your online privacy, surf anonymously and access blocked or censored content. It offers top-notch security and anonymity without being complicated to use or slowing down your Internet connection. Here you will find a detailed video on how Cyberghost works.

  • Syndie.
    Syndie is an open source cross-platform computer application to syndicate (re-publish) data (mainly forums) over a variety of anonymous and non-anonymous computer networks. Syndie is capable of reaching archives situated in those anonymous networks: I2P, Tor, Freenet.

3.2 Platform alternatives and privacy-enhancing modifiers

  • PrivacyDefender.
    With the add-on PrivacyDefender from, Facebook users can easily manage their privacy settings and ensure that only the people they choose can access their content. In four steps, PrivacyDefender resets your Facebook privacy settings, giving you precise control over how you share information. Although it is possible to adjust your Facebook privacy settings manually (see recommended Facebook privacy settings), PrivacyDefender takes the hard work and confusion out of the process and grants you instant peace of mind in knowing that your personal privacy is protected. You will need to install the add-on on Facebook.

  • DuckDuckGo.
    DuckDuckGo is a search engine that you may not be familiar with. What makes it different from mainstream search engines is that it’s anonymous. There’s no storing or tracking of a user’s search history and it doesn’t filter a user search query and results based on tracking data. According to their website, the general feedback from DuckDuckGo users is positive. In fact, many share that it reminds them of the pre-behemoth days of search. As an alternative search option that focuses on online privacy this may be a good solution for some users.

  • Sgrouples.
    Best summed up as a private social network with some enhanced features. For instance, users can create private groups, take advantage of 4GB of free cloud storage and read the network’s privacy bill of rights. Sgrouples makes it clear to users that they don’t track, don’t profile or share any personal information whatsoever. Lastly, this network operates as a standalone social platform or it can be paired with Facebook and Twitter for better privacy control. Its strict standards and support of online privacy has been recognized by other organizations too. In 2012, the OTA (Online Trust Alliance) recognized Sgrouples as a leader in the field of online privac and security.

3.3 Tools for identifying and disabling trackers

  • Ghostery.
    Ghostery is a free privacy-related browser extension, available for all major Internet browsers. It enables its users to detect and control web bugs which are objects embedded in a web page, invisible to the user, that allow the collection of data on the user’s browsing habits. Ghostery also has a privacy team that creates profiles of page elements and companies for educational purposes.

  • AdBlock.
    Adblock Plus blocks annoying ads on the web. It can block other things, like tracking, as well. With more than 50 million users, it is the world's most popular browser extension. Adblock Plus is an open source project created by Wladimir Palant in 2006.

3.4 Tools for encrypting personal data

  • Boxcryptor.
    If you would like to safe your personal data into the cloud, Boxcryptor is a good way to encrypt your files before sending it in the cloud. It works with most major cloud services like Dropbox, Skydrive and many more. Here you can find a video that will explain how Boxcryptor works.

3.5 Miscellaneous tools

  • PRISM Break.
    If you would like to know more tools to secure your privacy online and offline, we recommend you to look at PRISM Break! PRISM break is a website where people can look for alternative services to protect ones privacy. The website was created by Peng Zhong and it illustrates just how many services we use everyday are connected in some way to the companies that allegedly cooperate with the NSA.

4. References

"Alternative Christmas Message 2013." Episode 21. Alternative Christmas Message. Channel 4. 25 December 2013. TV Broadcast. Link.

boyd, danah. "Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data." danah boyd's writing. danah boyd. 2014. Accessed 20 September 2014. Web.

boyd, danah. "What Is Privacy?" danah boyd | apophenia. danah boyd. 2014. Accessed 21 September 2014. Web.

Elwood, Sarah, and Agnieszka Leszczynski. "Privacy, Reconsidered: New Representations, Data Practices, and the Geoweb." Geoforum 42.1 (2011): 6-15. Web.

Jurgenson, Nathan. "Why Privacy Is Actually Thriving Online." Wired. Accessed 19 September 2014. Web.

Redmond, Devin. "Balancing Privacy Expectations on Public Social Networks." Wired InnovationInsights. 2014. Wired. Accessed 19 September 2014. Web.

Wacks, Raymond. Privacy: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Print.

Westin, Alan. Privacy and Freedom. New York: Athenaum, 1967. Print.
Topic revision: r2 - 21 Sep 2014, ThomBovelander
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