How To Stay Private Online: Takeaways from our SXSW 2017 Panel

SXSW 2017 wrapped up this weekend, so we wanted to take a look back at the presentation our VP of Sales and Director of Marketing, Liz Kintzele, gave during the event.

The panel, “You Are Not Anonymous. The Myth of Online Privacy,” explored common myths associated with online privacy, data collection and how your information is being used. It also explained things you can do to protect your privacy online. Here’s a recap of the presentation’s key takeaways.

Myths About Online Privacy

There are many myths associated with online privacy, including:

Myth #1: I Can Be Anonymous Online

Although the term “anonymous” is commonly thrown around, it’s actually impossible to be anonymous online. With so much distinguishing information being collected, often without an individuals’ knowledge, there is almost always a way to identify someone based on their data.

Myth #2: Anonymity and Privacy Are the Same

These terms are in fact not the same, although they are sometimes used interchangeably. While anonymity refers to attempting to eliminate identifying data, privacy instead allows users to control access to their data. This makes privacy a more realistic goal.

Myth #3: Companies in the Cloud can be Truly Anonymous

Although many companies in the cloud advertise anonymous services, this is in fact not possible. It is extremely difficult to keep a zero-log server. Furthermore many companies rent as opposed to own their equipment, putting data in the hands of third parties who are free to handle (or mishandle) it as they choose.
Myth #4: Privacy Companies Don’t Collect or Sell my dData

Although many privacy companies advertise or market services to customers to protect privacy or anonymity, they actually do not protect their users’ data. Instead, far too often they abuse consumer trust.

Data Collection & History

The presentation then examined the history of data collection, and how we got from the Internet’s invention in 1989 to widespread data collection that occurs today. We looked at the big data business model, and the first and third-party data collection that occurs online – a lot of which happens when using popular services like Google and Facebook.

  • First-Party Data: Data that’s collected directly (for example, name and birthday)
  • Third-Party Data: Data that’s collected indirectly (for example, sites you visit, duration)

Third-party data collection is particularly concerning, as its not always obvious and can reveal a very intimate picture of a person’s life. Third-party data is also collected widespread, by services such as search engines, browsers, email providers, ISPs and Telcos, social media sites, websites and applications. It can then be stored sought and sold by companies, as well as big data brokers.

So why is this data collected? Many tell users its part of the service, when in fact it’s sold and used for profit. If it’s being sold, then of course it’s being stored – an act is often referred to as data retention. There is even legislation governing data retention for some businesses, which prescribes what must be stored and for how long.

Protecting Your Data and Privacy

As you can see, staying private online is very hard. And there are many false claims to be wary of – including the privacy paradox. The privacy paradox describes how providers in the privacy industry need users to give up control to effectively protect them, and users do so with the expectation of trust with the service. However services often abuse this trust by collecting data on free users, selling advertising and other negative practices. So it’s essential for users to be aware, and to ask themselves – is the price you pay in data worth it to you?

You can also do the following to better protect yourself online:

  1. Be aware of the risks
  2. Look beyond the surface and marketing messaging
  3. Understand who the company is
  4. Take control of your privacy by using tools, such as VPNs

For more on online privacy and anonymity and how to protect your privacy online view our 10 Myths article. Thanks to everyone who attended the SXSW panel!