It’s time to reconsider your social media accounts – privacy is extinct in the digital age

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The bus I was on had that horrendous familiarity; an elderly woman sat next to me, scanning The Herald — one eye on the paper, the other eye inquisitively purveying me while I texted; my knees were being impaled by the reclining chair in front of me; and the scent was of gone off rainwater. Dublin’s public transport is first class transport, let me tell you.

My cries for on-board WIFI also dissipated when my phone wouldn’t connect. Then things got decidedly worse when I realised I had no earphones. All the better to expose myself to the unforgiving sounds of a commuter bus.

I found amusement from the sound in the seat behind me. A young-sounding man behind me was topping up his phone credit via phone call. It first struck me that people still buy phone credit, I’d assumed we’d all transitioned to bill pay these days. Anyway, I sat there listening, the conversation becoming more and more hilarious, and my interest piquing. The young man appropriately transferred his credit card details to whomever was on the other line — was he forgetting he was side-by-side with a stranger?

Name. Date of Birth. Address. CVV number. Expiry Date. He loudly recited these back to the sales agent on the other line. Hammering each response with a worrying compliance. Initially, I thought: what an idiot. However the interplay of other elements made me think. Firstly, are we entering the death of privacy, and secondly, what digital rights is there or what ones are emerging to save it?

There comes a time, every decade or so, where a conversation about a generation takes place. This conversation is filled with venomous finger-pointing and victimising: a chaotic crisis infused with questions about the future of mankind. The blame-game is nowadays turning swiftly toward The Millennial Generation. This generation has come under scrutiny after the revenge porn ring that allegedly took place in UCD; the conversation has once again been reopened in regards to social media.  It has provoked a nationwide debate on many issues. However, no one cared to pay attention to the social media sites that promulgate and store these images, information, and conversations. No one seemed to question this large, never-ending web of stored information, whether in context of this occurrence or in the grander scheme  of things.

Take for example this generation in general; it has come forcibly and selfishly equipped. They’re the largest consumer force the world has ever seen: they know what they want. They’re adamant to find their niche early so they can pioneer their entrepreneurial life: they know how to get what they want. However, their online documentation of these endeavours is potentially harmful. They’re going about it all wrong. They aren’t even listening to what Snowden has to say.

The unsettling conversation and finger-pointing remains: is Generation Me ignoring privacy, or is it just one Venti-sized imbecile? We have been forced into the latter bracket because there’s no space for privacy anymore, when our lives: how we buy, how we communicate, how we work, how we’re informed, how we flirt, is all done so through technology. Human rights has been sparsely outrun by digital rights. Julia Angwin, an investigative reporter, has added to this digital riot; “retailers, shopping malls, even cities, are using the WiFi signal from your phone to track you.”

The underlying fear is that we’re moving toward an Orwellian nightmare — without protection, without individual privacy. Two things are at play here: the image of the Millennial in their online self-promotion, and the datagrabbing from these websites that exploit this.

Social media is exacerbating the self-promotion of individuals and is morphing into a tracking device of some sort. The Internet is the alcove of the narcissist; a hollow to embed ourselves and grow like a fungal bacteria. The maintenance and nutrition to this growth? Our validity. The ‘likes’ and ‘favourites’ and ‘shares’. It is these elements which enamour us. Each moment of vanity is imbued into each App. We use so much of our time and energy that we drain something else. Our iDevices become some sort of agony aunt; listening and viewing our incessant self-inflating personalities until she finally falls asleep. Is it any wonder we’re always trudging toward that ominous 1% battery mark? Granted, when one invests in a smart-phone, one is investing in a lifelong romance with oneself (in Apple’s case, ‘lifelong’ is synonymous to just-until-the-charger frays).

The constant use of social media is having a dangerous effect. When one adds a location to their status, or when one publicly acknowledges that they’re going on holidays for a week, they’re telling everyone that their house is empty. It’s as if one is a burglar’s perfect accomplice. Irony is strong in the digital age. A simple scroll of social media platforms becomes a hunting ground for those maliciously inclined.

Our device-obsessed generation do have concerns of our privacy. Recently, Snapchat updated its privacy policy. This update has caused a rift with those who use the App, claiming that Snapchat is storing user content and allegedly selling this content to marketers. Users do care about privacy, it appears. However, this platform differs from other platforms in that photos are sent privately. The concern, then, is connected to the image or reputation of an individual — the concern of where that ugly picture or that undisclosed nude photo is going to end up. When it comes to privacy those of this generation begin to second guess if their content is being patrolled by someone unbeknownst to them. The video-messaging company said it has never stored “snaps or chats” on its servers, refusing the allegations that Snapchat’s content is saved or used without an individual’s consent.

Digital rights is a conversation worth having. Last year, US privacy laws were questioned by the EU in relation to personal data-transfers from the EU to the US. US laws “permitting the public authorities to have access on a generalised basis to the content of electronic communications must be regarded as compromising the essence of the fundamental right to respect for private life”, said the EU court. The pact “is accordingly invalid”, it said. Privacy no longer holds the same credentials as it once had. Privacy has, as we know, evolved. For example; you know that template that pops up? — the one that hovers over select webpages and says something about ‘cookies’ and you have an afterthought of eating and then click OK and your attention dissipates. Cookies aren’t as tasteful as one is led to believe. What you are clicking is an agreement to a tracking number — one that is amassed in a spider-web of networks where companies can access your location and browsing history. From the get-go, your privacy has been compromised. Google, for example, is your best friend. He knows everything about you — everything you have searched, that is. Google predicts what you’re typing. He’s like that friend who finishes your sentences. Not literally, but it’s terrifyingly close.

After all this, I began to wonder where the future lies in my rights, and the rights of that idiot on the bus, and the rights of those girls whose content was possibly shared unbeknownst to them. For as long as we can remember a warrant is needed to access a home or physical documents. But what happens when an increasing amount of information is stored online, in a dark never-ending cyber-space, that we as users and consumers, don’t know that much about? The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit organisation set up to protect digital rights, have recently reported about California’s digital privacy laws. These laws enforced a warrant to be arranged before accessing an individual’s electronic data. Digital privacy protection globally, however, differs.

The EU has long since protected users under its Digital Agenda by asking users to ‘grant their consent before cookies are stored and accessed in computers’. According to the EU’s Report on the Implementation of the Telecommunications Regulatory Package, Ireland’s social networking usage has increased by 63%. It’s something worth noting. It is in its Europe 2020 Initiative to ‘help reboot the EU economy and enable Europe’s citizens and businesses to get the most out of digital technologies’ — however, the actions taken for digital privacy are a distant memory of the past, with the most recent update in 2013. The Agenda ‘proposes a number of practical solutions, including a coordinated European response to cyber-attacks and reinforced rules on personal data protection.’ However, since then, no actions have been outlined.

Cyber-security is a complicating foray of legal and human rights issues. Although there is an initiative to tackle these in the EU, it is a slow progression. The foil to tackling these issues is this generation, and our unwillingness or ignorance about these human rights issues, that aren’t forgotten about, but are never heard about from the beginning. Our data is being grabbed and our privacy ended when we first joined Facebook — but it is as a result of our conceited digital environment. Our marriage to our digital devices is more discontent than we realise. It’s time we call it quits and sign the divorce papers.

by SHANE DEVEREUX

(Photo credit)

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