This was the year that privacy came to call. Privacy violations ran rampant in the news and everyone from the government to consumers to companies were suddenly hyper focused on privacy. The range of reactions – from mere lip service claiming privacy is important to concrete changes in company policies and government legislation – revealed a lot about how consumers, companies and the government are all thinking about privacy at the end of this decade. Here are our key takeaways.
Just Because a Technology Claims to Be Secure that Doesn’t Mean it Will Protect Your Privacy
Several privacy incidents this year showed that security by encryption doesn’t guarantee that your information is protected. Encrypted messaging tools including WhatsApp and Telegram had several high-profile leaks this year. WhatsApp, which is particularly known for its end-to-end security, had a bug that let hackers install spyware simply through a missed WhatsApp call. These incidents make it clear: encryption does not guarantee your privacy, other precautions are necessary, too.
That Said, It’s Becoming Harder for Consumers to Stay in Control of Their Privacy
Typically, companies place the responsibility on the consumer to maintain their own privacy by insisting they read their terms and conditions before using their technology. But this places unfair expectations on the consumer: companies often deliberately make their terms and conditions misleading, and in some cases, they access people’s information without informing them first. A study this spring found that Android phones were coming with pre-installed apps on the phone that were harvesting people’s data without their consent. Meanwhile, the rise of facial recognition technology means that people’s faces are being recorded in day-to-day situations, like boarding an airplane or shopping at the mall, without even realizing it. This can have dangerous consequences, like when an 18-year-old was arrested for Apple store thefts he didn’t commit.
The Companies That are the Loudest About Privacy Also Tend to be the Biggest Privacy Offenders
The obvious culprit is Facebook, which, after years of regularly harvesting users’ data, suddenly tried to pivot to focus on privacy-focused communication. This announcement was rightly met with skepticism, given privacy scandals like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s history of misleading its users about just how much information they’re collecting from them. But it isn’t just Facebook who’s been talking the privacy talk but not walking the walk. Apple and Amazon emphasize privacy but both were in the news this year for employing staff to listen to digital voice assistant recordings, capturing people’s personal conversations, including confidential medical information.
So, what’s the upshot? It’s more important than ever to understand what privacy means and recognize that when a technology claims to be secure, or even claims to protect your information, that doesn’t necessarily mean it guarantees your privacy. And of course, when it comes to taking steps to protect your privacy, picking the right tool matters, especially for communication. That means looking for tools that provide you complete control over who can see your information including whether it can be forwarded, copied or saved – even after it reaches another person’s device. The privacy developments this year have made one thing very clear: privacy requires much more than just encryption.