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Pronunciation: /ˈprɪvəsi, ˈprʌɪ-/

Definition of privacy (from the Oxford English Dictionary)


[mass noun]

  • a state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people: she returned to the privacy of her own home
  • the state of being free from public attention: a law to restrict newspapers’ freedom to invade people’s privacy

In today’s society our ability to retain our privacy depends on our ability to control our personal information. In the last 20 years the internet and mobile devices have become the predominant methods of communication, and perhaps unwittingly we have lost control of that personal information.

Our assumption was, that what we do and say were somehow protected, but how many of us actually know that?

There are privacy laws that have slowly been introduced in recent years to protect the information that a company can retain about us. Most recently web sites now have to publish a cookie policy stating that information about your visit may be tracked. Its a start.

For decades Governments have been introducing and using surveillance methods to monitor the population to determine if there are threats to the safety of our society. Unfortunately those same techniques are used by others with less benevolent intentions.

Before the advent of mobile telecommunications, the holy grail for marketers and others was to have a unique identifier for each individual. In that way marketing becomes more targeted as a profile is built up over time. Reducing costs, and generating more revenue from you.

Ideally it would be a social security or national insurance number. For the most part, the use of those unique identifiers was restricted. Since the rapid proliferation of smart-phones and other devices, there is a new unique identifier.

A smart-phone is a very personal device, we communicate, we store personal data, we capture and share images, and our location is easily mapped. Simply by using one, you have uniquely identified yourself to a service provider and the maker of the operating system. At the very least they have your email address, phone number, unique device identifier and physical location. Without careful attention to default settings, they may also be able to watch your movements, looking for patterns of behavior, and for example – proximity to businesses and places of interest, medical facilities, and other individuals.

Combined with this data and based on the things you buy, the amounts you spend, and where you spend, a profile of you is built up and maintained. Assumptions are made and you are categorised based on your demographics and psycho-graphics

If you liked the feeling that you were more or less anonymous, and a reasonably private person, that reality may have become a distant memory.

Even though you aren’t posting every minute detail of your life on social networks, and share only personal thoughts with a handful of people, there are more subtle ways that people can find out about you.

Every communication you have using a computer or smart-phone has a certain amount of security built in. Whether it is a text message, instant message or an email, the service providers will tell you that it is secure. To a certain extent that is true, however this usually only refers to the message as it leaves your device, arrives on their servers, and is then forwarded to the recipients device.

If you use an email service that displays advertising, you will notice that the ads you see are often surprisingly relevant to you. This is because your emails are scanned for keywords. The service providers can build up a profile of you from what you say in your emails. The same is true for other forms of messaging. In recent years the use of text messaging and other forms of messaging for marketing has been frowned upon because of the cost to the owner of the device. This is changing.

More mobile device service plans include higher allowances of messaging and data. While a benefit to the owner of the device, the reality is that service providers can make more money by selling profile based advertising and services, and since the messaging and data allowances are included in the monthly plan or pay as you go fee, it may be less annoying and consumers less likely to complain.

More recent development in North America and Europe have shown that laws are likely to be changed to force service providers to retain email and other forms of messaging for longer periods of time. While the motivation for this is to increase security, and make it easier to track down criminals and terrorists, it increases the likelihood that your private messages and attached data can be accessed by someone other than law enforcement.

The problem isn’t just confined to text based communications. The advent of Cloud based services means that we now store personal data and images on servers that may not even be in our own country, and therefore subject to different levels of privacy protection. Cloud services allow you to write and store documents, use online calendars, send messages and expose more of your life, business, and information.

In addition, the ownership of the data and images stored on a Cloud based server may be taken out of your hands. In recent months for example, there have been attempts to change the rules of social networking sites to transfer the ownership of content and images to the service provider.

So, despite what you are told about your privacy being protected – by service providers, industry regulators, and governments – it is partially protected, and only until somebody else wants to look at what you say and do.

Its not just about big brother search engines, and social networks. What about bullying, harassment, unwanted communications, hackers, stalkers, suspicious partners, corporate spies, the politically motivated, whistle-blowers, and even journalists?

In recent years there began to emerge stories of bullying on social networks, some of those ended with tragic results. At the same time awareness of bullying and harassment using mobile devices became more commonplace. Its not the that these kinds of behaviors didn’t happen before, but technology has made it more immediate. We can respond to comments, suggestions, and assumptions more quickly than ever, often without having the time to think about what is said and the potential consequences our actions may have.

Lack of ethics and questionable behavior will always be a challenge, the use of mobile technology has however become an enabler.

By safeguarding the way in which we communicate, and allow others to communicate with us, we can increase our chances of retaining our privacy and reduce our vulnerability to those that make assumptions about our personality, our lifestyle, and our personal (cyber) space.

There is no longer a guarantee of privacy. Laws and regulations can be introduced, but the strength of privacy laws is in how far they go, and how well they are enforced. Private communication has been an assumed fact. The reality, however is very different.