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Has the battle for privacy already been lost?

As the coronavirus pandemic has spread throughout the world, not only have various digital apps been developed to try and help people contribute towards the tracking of the virus, but states have also been given unprecedented powers that civil liberties groups worry might result in the kind of overreach that Hungary’s Viktor Orban is guilty of, after he passed a law granting him near unlimited power, for an indefinite period of time.

While few governments have been guilty of such overreach, there are concerns that the battle for our privacy may already have been lost. A recent study from NortonLifeLock suggests that for many consumers, the horse has already bolted and they will not regain control of their online privacy.

"With over a third of consumers across 10 countries (roughly 350 million people) experiencing cybercrime in the last year alone, consumers are understandably concerned about their privacy and attempting to take action to protect it," the report says. "However, despite taking precautionary steps, many feel it’s too late or even impossible to protect their privacy."

A losing battle

The research saw over 10,000 adults from 10 countries quizzed to understand both their experiences with cybercrime and their thoughts on how their privacy can best be maintained. The results reveal that the majority of people are understandably concerned about their privacy, especially the privacy of their online data.

This manifests itself in nearly all respondents taking steps to protect their online activities, with the most common being clearing cookies and limiting the type of information they share on social media. Indeed, despite the common perception being that most of us scarcely pay any attention to user agreements before signing up for online services, some 66% of respondents said they had chosen not to download an app after finding cause for concern in the app's privacy policy.

Interestingly, at a time when governments are securing unprecedented powers for themselves around the world, many people believe it's also beholden on governments to protect their personal information. It's a responsibility that the majority of respondents feel they are not upholding at the current time.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was little love lost for companies, many of whom were regarded as being poor custodians of our data. This dereliction of responsibility is largely regarded as deliberate, all the way to the construction of the EULA policies, which many believe are deliberately confusing, and designed in such a way that users are forced to sign them or not use the service. For many, they say they would be much more inclined to read the policies if they were given a degree of control over how much information they shared, and how it was used.

Faces in the crowd

Respondents were especially concerned about the latest developments in facial recognition technology, with concerns emerging despite a general lack of awareness around just what the technology is capable of, or indeed the regulations surrounding it. Despite this general lack of awareness, the overwhelming majority believe that both businesses and government should have to report when they use facial recognition technology, and how they do so. The biggest concern is less one of a loss of civil liberties, however, and more that of cybercriminals using data from the technology to steal their identity.

The general sense of fatalism around our online data is something that NortonLifeLock believes is a significant danger to our privacy and security online, as it can discourage us from taking the right measures to protect ourselves.

“The notion that it’s ‘too late’ to protect their online privacy could put people at great risk. This is further amplified by the conviction that their information is already out of their own hands, as well as their willingness to trade off their privacy for convenience”, they say. 

This matters, as just over half of respondents reported having been victims of cybercrime in the past, whether that was downloading malware onto their device or granting unauthorized access to an email or social media account. Indeed, the report suggests that in Britain alone, some 16.5 million people experienced cybercrime in the past year, with a total cost to the economy of around £1.4 billion.

The report concludes with a number of steps people can take to better protect their data online:

  • Own your online presence, and read any terms and conditions before you open the account and download the app.
  • Check your permissions, especially on mobile apps that can collect a huge amount of personal information.
  • Be careful with what you connect, with smart speakers and other connected devices coming with default privacy settings that may not be to your liking, especially if the device is connected to security functions in your home.
  • Keep devices safe, especially as facial recognition and fingerprint-based security are increasingly deployed. This is not the type of information you want in the wrong hands.
  • Use reputable security software, and make sure your devices have strong, multi-layered security software.

Despite the fatalistic attitude many seem to have around their data and security online, there is still much that we can all do to be as safe as possible. The first step is to accept that our security is in our own hands.

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