Many people are aware of the privacy and protection issues facing us across the globe, and, yet, when topics like digital footprint, data mining and meta-data come up, eyes glaze over and faces go blank.
'A lot of it has to do with the fact that data breaches and companies holding information hasn’t directly affected most people, and so it doesn’t matter to them as much,' explained Kate Green, a PhD researcher at The University of Nottingham, UK.
Green has been studying Internet privacy, with a particular focus on medical information and social network sharing in various online groups, particularly on Facebook and Twitter, for a number of years.
With the use of social media platforms on the rise, targeted online advertising, GPS tracking, Internet-enabled devices everywhere, convenience and efficiency can easily outweigh people’s concerns about privacy.
'I think people would care if it were a real person following them. I think because they are devices, because they don’t have a face, and they don’t breathe, you feel safer,' Green said. 'But if someone was following you around, writing everything down, logging everything you were doing, people would be extremely concerned.'
How much of our information is out there? How closely are we being tracked? Is it possible to hide our information and still partake in the global digital community?
In 2016 Green started a project called #privacyUG to find out.
'#PrivacyUG is an open and underground privacy class. I wanted to make it so that anyone could participate in the class. To start, I selected a few people, and I sent them a bcc email asking them to participate in a project. I didn’t give many details, and then I gave them a really cryptic riddle as to how to get to the meeting location.'
Kate’s email had to be cryptic and mysterious because she didn’t want Google or anyone/anything who handled the emails to know where they would meet. People don’t typically think about their devices watching them and this information being shared across providers. The data they provide could easily allow anyone with access to see what they are doing, with whom, and, as in this case, where they are going to be at any moment.
'I gave the group instructions as to how to untrack themselves before coming. Things like, go into phone settings, close all their apps, close Bluetooth, go into flight mode, turn off GPS. Then on their laptop, I had them turn on TOR web browser, and close all other apps and browsers down.'
To go off the grid takes dozens of steps. And the group had not even arrived at their bricks-and-mortar location yet. Through this, Green wanted the group to get a practical understanding of the many ways we are being tracked and just how difficult it is to shield ourselves from the algorithms that track our online behaviour.
'When we arrived [at the meeting location], we reconnected back to the Internet via a Virtual Private Network (VPN), and no one could know from the metadata where we were.'
Then the group would watch Ted Talks and other videos, while publicly tweeting their conversation about what they were viewing through the TOR browser. The project faced a bump in the road, when a group member showed up who didn’t follow the instructions.
'Someone showed up who didn’t follow the instructions and was still connected online [thereby revealing our location to the algorithms], and then someone else tweeted the group that they had arrived, and that left us vulnerable [to being discovered],' Green said.
'These were moments where people could practice privacy manoeuvring, and get an understanding of how entwined each other’s metadata is in our lives.'
For Green, privacy takes on an even more urgent role when talking about medical conditions online, and is particularly contentious in our relationship with social media and how data is collected. People tend to think that if they are sharing in areas [such as groups and forums] that are closed to the general public that their information is safe, but that’s not the case because Facebook itself can see anything you put on its platform.
'It’s almost like putting a blanket over your eyes. You are given all these privacy options, and you feel in control, but the privacy you are in control of is a different privacy.'
Green became interested in this when she was an undergraduate because many of her assignments took place over social media platforms for ease of use and to help create a digital community.
'We would listen to pre-recorded lectures and we would tweet our notes, so that all our classmates could see them. We would have a global reach there [on social media],' but it also had its drawbacks, many of which Green recognised, but her professors hadn’t considered.
'We were given weekly tasks, and one was to tell a story that you haven’t talked about before, and I felt really uncomfortable telling a personal story when I didn’t know who the audience may be.'
Given that Green had been suffering from Crohn’s disease since her adolescence she wondered if this might be a good ‘coming out’ moment for her.
'I didn’t know what the ramifications [of revealing this] would be. What could happen with personal information I put online publicly? We were looking at Google Education, and I wondered if that meant that Google had this data from students. It seemed baffling that we weren’t tackling this as hard as we should be.'
It was this experience that prompted Green to set up #PrivacyUG. She wanted to create the awareness that is lacking in terms of how people are digitally tracked and what they are sharing. Privacy laws don’t mean much when people themselves give their medical information away. They receive much needed support for the content of their stories, but meanwhile their data is public for data mining purposes. Meaning governments, corporations and other conglomerates can see and know our most private information.
In Green’s case, she didn’t know how those entities knowing about her Crohn’s disease would impact her life. She wants to continue her privacy research and increase data education in the coming years.
'Digital citizenship requires education, a different way of thinking,' she said. 'The bottom line comes down to education and transparency on all levels.'
Platforms and social networks we use as members of the public need to show us what they are collecting on us and how they are using it, but until that day comes, Kate Green will be out there with #PrivacyUG, showing people how to protect themselves and keep their lives private.
The article was written by Darlena Cunha. Reproduced by kind permission of the Internet Society.
The Internet Society is a global cause-driven organisation governed by a diverse Board of Trustees. The Internet Society works for an open, globally-connected, secure, and trustworthy Internet for everyone.