Tactical Advice

Is Anything Online Private Anymore?

With the rise of social media, few digital citizens can expect true anonymity online.
Is Anything Online Private Anymore?
Credit: iStockphoto/ThinkStockPhoto

Online data can be secured and protected through various cloud services in various ways, but "privacy" online has gone the way of the dodo bird.

Looking at secure data is one thing, but privacy is completely different from secured data. The distinction is important because nowadays, in this age of social media, personal information is about as private as a billboard.

When Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, was asked about online privacy, his answer was short and to the point: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." The scary part is that McNealy made that comment way back in 1999 — long before Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and other apps that suck privacy up like a vacuum came along.

Social Media’s Track Record with Privacy

Every time I speak to a group about Internet privacy, people argue with me about Facebook security.

"I have my Facebook information secured, no one can see it except my closest friends and family," they tell me. Sometimes they're naive, and sometimes they're hostile, daring me to argue with them.

Two little details blow the notion of Facebook privacy away. First, any friend can comment on or cross-post your most private, well-protected post, replacing your secure profile with their "share with the world" profile.

The second problem with Facebook security is that Facebook keeps moving the goal posts. The minute you finish crafting a solid, secure profile, Facebook may change the rules with an update to their terms of service (TOS).

While it might seem like I’m picking on Facebook, few of the other social media services do better with privacy. In late 2012, Instagram got into hot water after mistakenly admitting that your photos, once placed on their site, become their photos. After some quick backpedaling, Instagram says that's not what they meant, but their TOS pretty much says so, buried inside the legalese.

Twitter is a broadcast service, and behaviors on the site are geared toward transparent and public communication. But Twitter found itself in an uncomfortable situation when the legal hammer fell on them over archived tweets from people affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

After a valiant fight, Twitter had no choice but to provide a protestor’s tweets to a New York criminal judge. It was a blow for activists, who had hoped to leverage Twitter as a tool that would be safe from the reach of the government’s prying eyes.

Here’s the stone-cold truth about privacy in the Internet age: Everything you do on the web can be made public. We’re all just a tweet, Forward, Share or Like away from having our online secrets broadcast to the world.

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About the Author

James E. Gaskin

James E. Gaskin

James writes books, articles and jokes about technology from his Dallas-area home office. He also consults for those who don’t read his books and articles.

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