Is it the beginning of the end of exploitive surveillance economy era for the internet users?

SEP 12, 2021

Recently Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB) has recognized that some of its engineers have abused employee access to take advantage of user data. An outstanding example is that one of their engineers used his access to track down a woman who had left him after they fought.

In this digital era, we gave up essential parts of our privacy for the ease of using our phones and computers. We have reluctantly accepted that being tracked and observed by companies and even governments is a reality of contemporary life. Because the transmission of personal data and valuable information via the Internet has become completely common, online transactions and communication can lead to leakage of confidential information which can backfire.

As surveillance grows more prevalent in our lives, privacy may no longer be seen as an inherent right. The online sites we browse can be monitored by cookies, which gather personal information such as websites viewed, login credentials, and other tracking data to identify us as unique users, and all users subsequently can be re-identified via web browsing history fingerprints in 80% of cases.

Lukasz Olejnik, a security and privacy researcher and engineer, in his analysis “How much are we worth?” finds that private data flows in ad networks, used information leaks for fun and profit. “Lists of user-visited sites are even transferred to advertisers programmatically via the real-time bidding channel. The amount of web browsing data available to website operators and advertisers has only increased over the past decade,” he points out.

Merely enabling private browsing mode on our browsers won't protect against every kind of browser tracking, because it doesn't mask our IP address, and Internet Service Providers can still collect our browsing activity linked to it.

We also can't rely on manufacturers of Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets, as they frequently activate functions that may hurt our privacy or security by default to enhance device performance. Therefore, it is critical to be familiar with the operation and capabilities of the web browser we use.

The good news is that there are some safe browsers that have additional functionality to prevent unwanted third-party involvement while we're browsing the web by blocking features that aren't on a list of permitted programs and activities. And unlike anti-spyware and antivirus applications responding after the danger is detected, they use a more proactive method to prohibit certain activities from occurring in the first place. This prevents tracking our online behavior across various websites and trading our identity and private information.

Browsers such as Brave, Vivaldi, and Firefox have many options and configurations to block scripts and protect users' privacy. The Tor Browser project's notoriously high level of privacy and anonymity has even made it attractive to criminals.

Risks to our privacy and safety are constantly developing, and things may change for the good — or the worse — in a matter of years. When it comes to encrypted data, it's a continual tug of war between government agencies, innovation behemoths, and the public.

But there are changes being made slowly and with great difficulty. The concern about privacy is now more widespread. Despite the fact that we have resigned ourselves to being spied on by large tech companies, in the last few months, we can see the beginning signals that our privacy and security will be better protected in the future.

Because of Apple Inc. AAPL +undefined% (Get Free Alerts for AAPL) CEO Tim Cook’s personal concern about privacy, the company has been emphasizing privacy as its main feature, and in its privacy battle with Facebook, Cook said their policy is rooted in the company's belief that "users should have the choice over the data that is being collected about them and how it's used." The final act of the war was the April 2021 release of iOS 14.5, which now forces iOS developers to request permission to track their users beyond the app in use. As a consequence, around 85% of people have chosen to opt out of tracking.

How are the other affected big tech companies reacting to this?

While Google still can monitor activities on their own sites and apps, as Apple does nothing to prevent first-party tracking, Facebook and its advertisers are ‘panicking’: “Apple’s policy is hurting the ability of businesses to use their advertising budgets efficiently and effectively,” a Facebook spokesman said.

Another good indicator in the direction of protecting privacy is that DuckDuckGo, a privacy-focused search engine, became the #2 on mobile in the U.S. and also launched a new email tracker removal service. Responding to public pressure, WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned app, agreed not to limit accounts’ functionality for ignoring their privacy policy update, while intended to do that initially. Brave acquires a search engine to offer a private alternative to Google on both mobile and desktop.

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