Is internet privacy a lost cause?

Privacy news
4 mins
A gravestone with "internet Privacy" engraved upon it.

Most people think of privacy as a fundamental right. The right to have a personal conversation without someone listening, the right to keep your belongings out of public view.

ExpressVPN believes that individual privacy is something everyone deserves.

For a long time on the internet, there was an illusion of privacy. From secure online shopping payments to password-protected social network accounts—we were told our information was protected and safe. Perhaps you still believe it is?

But for many people, events like mass NSA surveillance and the theft of celebrities’ personal photographs have changed perceptions about internet privacy. It seems all too easy for hackers to get into our stuff—and much of that ‘hacking’ is government-sponsored.

Getting your data is like taking candy from a baby

There have been many high profile cases of hacking and surveillance in the past few years.

  • The National Security Agency: The NSA legally monitors every American’s phone records, has access to phone and internet traffic in the U.S. and abroad, and hacks targets as it sees fit. The UK and other governments do it too.
  • Celebrity photo theft: Anonymous posted over 500 celebrity photos on the 4chan image board in 2014, many containing nudity. Apple’s iCloud service is believed to be the source of the breach.
  • eBay: The online shopping service was hacked in mid-2014, exposing millions of users’ passwords and data.
  • Target: 70 million Target customers had their credit card data stolen in 2014 after hackers found a security hole in the company’s systems.
  • PlayStation Network: The online game service was hacked by LulzSec in 2011, resulting in the theft of around 77 million users’ account data.

When our data is stolen and monitored so often, from big companies who insist our data is safe in their hands, it seems sensible to be a little less trusting with our information.

The cost of free online services is your privacy

If you use free web email and social media services, then you also give up your private information to third parties every day.

There’s a reason these services are free. Some of the ways they use your data include:

  • Ad targeting: Search engines, social networks, and other services track your activities, so they can target you with ads.
  • Selling your data: With your consent, and sometimes without, companies you sign up with online often sell your information to marketing list makers. Junk mail ahoy!
  • Monitoring your email: Many popular free webmail services monitor your messages for criminal activity and may be legally obliged to share your data with government agencies.

Of course, you might well be aware of all this – and yet you probably still choose to use Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and so on.

After all, nothing is really free. Maybe giving up a little of your information is worth it?

Malicious hackers

Another major threat to Internet privacy is one we can probably all agree is unwelcome.

Symantec’s “2014 Internet Security Threat Report” found that malware, phishing and other attacks on our personal computers led to the exposure of over 552 million identities in 2013. There was a 62% increase in the number of breaches and a 91% increase in targeted attacks campaigns in the same year.

With online crime on the increase, the future of internet privacy appears far from safe.

Privacy steps you can take

When all’s said and done though, who is responsible for your privacy online? You are.

Anyone who wants to keep their data totally private could stay off the internet, but that isn’t much of an option in today’s world. So it’s about taking the right security steps and making informed choices about how we share our data. Sometimes, as with government surveillance, those choices are out of our hands. But there are steps you can take to increase your privacy.

  • Take security measures: Keep your online accounts safe, reduce the risk of security breaches by keeping your software up to date and by using security software. Stay aware of common online risks.
  • Be careful who you sign up with: Don’t trust every cloud service with a fancy website. Research online, read the terms of service, and look for how they’ll use your data.
  • Use a VPN service: VPN services encrypt your Internet traffic so that third parties can’t snoop on your activities. Data is much more secure when you connect to the Internet via a VPN.

Read more top internet privacy tips here.

A connected world probably means less privacy

So is internet privacy a lost cause? As we’ve seen, putting our personal information in the hands of big companies is not very secure. There’s a real risk it will be stolen. And that risk seems to be increasing.

Using online services means willfully giving up a bit of our privacy. But because we want to be part of a connected world, many of us are happy to do so.

In the internet economy, your data is valuable currency. Internet privacy isn’t likely to get any easier in the future. Stay aware, stay secure, and choose how you share your data carefully. And, of course, don’t forget to use a VPN to protect your data.

Lexie is the blog's resident tech expert and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries.