How many of “You” are there online?
[Note: This message was originally drafted for CyberTips, an organisation that empowers Bermuda residents of all ages to safely and responsibly use cyberspace and technology. To learn more about CyberTips' work, visit their website at cybertips.bm.]
Being online is a lot like getting dressed. (Really! Hear me out.)
Sometimes you need to be more formal, for events and special occasions. Sometimes you want to be stylish, and wear what’s cool to impress your friends. And sometimes you just want to throw on something comfortable and flop on your couch.
Just like deciding what you are going to wear, you might decide to use certain apps with friends, others with family, and others with teachers or employers. In each situation you are deciding, to an extent, which “you” that you want be today, or even in that moment.
That’s what we mean by “Privacy.” Putting you in control so you can make the decision about which face you want to show the world. Especially before the internet (back in dinosaur times), clothes were a big part of how we showed ourselves to the world. You may have heard the expression, “Clothes make the man”. Now, thanks to the internet, many of our communications are no longer in person, so we may not even see the person we are chatting with. Today, in many ways it is our apps that act like our clothing and make the person, because the apps help us control how people see us and what data we share. But since we have these apps and devices involved ever more closely in our lives, we have to make sure they are actually doing what we want and what we tell them. What happens online might last forever. When data is shared in ways you don’t know about, organisations might build profiles that connect the different You’s in ways you never wanted. After all, you don’t want to talk to your grandmother the same way you talk to your friends--and she probably doesn’t want to see that side of you, either! That’s why it is so important to check your privacy settings, and try to understand what an app does before you download it.
Think about it this way: if you invited someone into your house, they could try to stick something in their pocket when you weren’t looking. The same way, any app that you invite into your phone or other device can potentially access anything that is on that device. Apps that you use to communicate may have access to your pictures or to read the messages, unless they have promised to limit their own access by doing things like encrypting the communication. Many companies make their money by observing what you do or learning what you like, so they can sell that information to others. They build profiles, mainly so that they can sell ads that will be more likely to catch your attention. (That’s what it means when a web site asks you if you would like “relevant” ads. It may be relevant, because they are auctioning “You” off using a profile to sell the advertising space to companies--all in the span of a second!) Apps, or the companies behind them, may process data to tell if different communications come from the same device or the same WiFi network. They can see that your online friends have the same phone numbers as the people in your phone. They can tell that your Finsta is the same "You" as your Insta if you have shared your geolocation or GPS coordinates with them. Times are changing, and you have more rights now than ever to stand up to this sort of data collection. Thanks to new laws, like Bermuda’s Personal Information Protection Act, everyone has the ability to see what data a company has and potentially ask them to stop using it. You have more tools than ever to stay in control of your privacy and which face you want to show the world at any given time. That does mean that it is up to you to hold apps and companies accountable. If you think they are doing something unethical, you can reach out to their contact email and ask them to explain themselves. If you don’t feel like they are responding to you, you will soon be able to make complaints to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. So remember to think carefully before you act. Make sure you understand what an app will do and how it will use your data before you download it. (The same way you wouldn't invite someone into your home and give them permission to walk off with your TV.) And always, make sure you are properly dressed before you open the door--even if that sometimes means wearing a suit of armour!
To reach out to the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, please visit our Contact Us page.