Newsletter - sign up here
Search Webster
Webster's pieces from The Oldie
Webster's Webwatch

Privacy is dead - if it ever existed

February 2014

I’ve come to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion: privacy is dead, having been scuppered by the internet.  What’s more, it’s like virginity – once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.

We are all used to the idea that confidential matters should be just that: confidential.  That more or less worked in a world which used paper and filing cabinets because storing, retrieving and using the information was laborious and time-consuming.  Thousands of people have always had legitimate access to all your records; it’s just that hitherto, using your details has been slow and awkward.

Now the information is computerised and often online, it’s easy.  If your bank wants to know which of its customers have spent money in Waterstones, it’s there at the touch of a button.  Twenty years ago, making such a list would have been a herculean task.

So, even if banks, doctors, HMRC and the rest don’t store any more about you than they used to (which I doubt), it’s now very much easier for anyone with access to interrogate the data and form an opinion about you.  I call that an erosion of privacy.

On top of that is the gigantic growth in access to what is already in the public domain, coupled with the highly detailed trail we leave whenever we are online.  Have you ever been mentioned on a website?  Perhaps by your university, a club you belong to, or a committee you are on?  Then it’s all out there, waiting to be harvested.  In a few minutes, any internet searcher who knows what they are doing can uncover a preposterous amount of information about you and people connected to you.  Employment history, address, phone numbers, relatives, age, hobbies and much more; that’s an erosion of privacy.

Perhaps none of the single facts is secret, and on their own aren’t much, but accumulate them all and you build up quite a picture of a person.  Much of it will have crept online without you realising, put there by others; references to you on websites, emails, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and all the other sites that exist to encourage people to bung things online.  Individually, perhaps not too worrying; aggregate it all, however, and that’s an erosion of privacy.

Ultimately, complete privacy online simply does not exist.  Even if you cloak yourself with encryption and anonymity, everything you do online is recorded somewhere, and it is becoming increasingly easy to work backwards; in other words, by analysing what you are doing anonymously, it may be possible to link your anonymous and public profiles and uncover who you are.  That’s an erosion of privacy.

So my theory is that privacy never really existed, it’s just that until now, collating all the available information has been difficult; now it’s easy and becoming easier.  As I’ve said before, like an elephant, the internet never forgets, but unlike an elephant, it is not likely to die.

So what to do about it?  You can’t hide; one elderly chap told me firmly that he wasn’t “on the internet” as he had never used a computer or looked at a website.  In a couple of minutes I showed him how much I could find on him; he was astonished and asked me to remove it all from cyberspace; unfortunately that’s not how it works.

I think the answer is simply to be aware of the situation and act sensibly.  Don’t post comments on websites if you don’t want them repeated elsewhere; if a website publishes details about you, make sure you are comfortable with it.  If not, ask them to take it down – most respectable sites will do so happily, although in my experience the least co-operative are newspapers and the like.

Like it or not, privacy is dead, with no hope of renaissance.