FaceApp, the app that allows users to magically “age” photos of themselves, has been around since 2017. But it wasn’t until early 2019 that the app went viral, with over 80 million users uploading photos of themselves.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that the uproar over FaceApp has contributed to a larger conversation about privacy issues that we desperately need to be having right now.
Our problems with privacy in the digital age are severe and systemic, running much deeper than one company’s convoluted terms and conditions.
Here’s why we need to begin taking our privacy back immediately:
Privacy is already disappearing at a rapid pace.
Put a frog in boiling water, and it will leap out. Place a frog in cold water and slowly turn up the heat—it won’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late.
Each time we give away a little privacy for the sake of convenience, we allow both private companies and the government to turn up the heat and push for more information. The water gets a touch warmer, and our control diminishes.
Unfortunately, we’re handing privacy away—at least at the consumer level.
Consider that both Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are always listening inside your home. Even though both companies assure us the virtual assistants won’t begin recording until they’re woken with a catchphrase, Google recently admitted that a bug allowed its Home Mini to begin recording before it had been activated. Even better, Amazon uses real people to review portions of customers’ recordings. Unless the customer chooses to opt-out, that is.
Yes, it’s more convenient to ask Alexa to set a timer for your baked ziti, but is it worth having a device in your home that’s constantly listening?
The trouble is, even if you’ve resisted the urge to put one of those devices in your home, plenty of other forces are at work.
Privacy isn’t just being eroded by businesses—many people within the government are angling for a less private society.
When U.S. Attorney General Willam Barr called for tech companies to give law enforcement access to encrypted communications and information, it was a massive blow against what’s left of our privacy.
The call for a backdoor into encrypted information is alarming on multiple levels.
Law enforcement agencies argue that they need the information to prosecute criminals. On its face, the argument may seem to hold water. But in reality, creating a backdoor for law enforcement also creates a backdoor for malicious actors. If there’s an opening, hackers will find it.
Beyond potential hacks, our government already has a troubling history when it comes to collecting information on its citizens. After 9/11, Americans were asked to give up privacy in the name of stopping future attacks. Of course, we soon learned the NSA was eavesdropping without warrants on millions of Americans with the help of telecom companies like AT&T.
After 9/11, Americans were asked to give up privacy in the name of stopping future attacks. Of course, we soon learned the NSA was eavesdropping without warrants on millions of Americans with the help of telecom companies like AT&T.
Opening a backdoor into encrypted communications is a violation of an individual’s right to privacy.
But it also endangers sensitive business and financial information. The government would essentially be mandating a weakness within communications—a weakness people would simply have to trust was being used appropriately by law enforcement and would never be hacked.
If that sounds too risky, that’s because it is. No one needs to be giving away what little privacy they have left. Instead, we need to be looking for ways to enhance our privacy and roll back some of the intrusions into our lives by corporate interests and the government.
Protecting your privacy requires you to be proactive.
The truth is, most people don’t really understand the scope of our privacy issues. Or, if they do, they don’t know what to do about it.
If you feel like you’re not tech-savvy enough to be proactive about your privacy, you’re not alone. But you’re also not entirely correct—there are plenty of ways you can protect yourself that don’t require a computer science degree.
- Start investigating where and how your data is being stored. Google recently announced that users can change their settings to place a time limit on how long Google retains data. But there are plenty of other sites, including social media and data aggregators that have more info on you than you might expect. It takes some legwork on your end, but you can reach out to companies and request they delete your data.
- Consider setting up a VPN. A VPN—or virtual private network—routes your traffic through a server in different locations around the world, shielding your IP address from prying eyes. While it may sound complicated, but a number of companies now make it simple for anyone to set up a VPN.
- Dig deep into the security settings on your phone and computer. Look at which apps are using your microphone or location services. Do they really need access? Some may, but you can always limit it to when you’re using the app, rather than giving companies carte blanche.
- Support and use encrypted technology. Plenty of options for encrypted communications exist today. And even though it may seem crazy, there are more privacy-friendly search engines than Google.
- Get involved. Voice your support for better privacy laws and research your elected representatives’ stances on issues like data ownership, privacy, and law enforcement. Our government may be slow to act, but people have to build momentum for them to address these issues.
I know it’s tough to cast a critical eye on the technology we use every day. People need it to do their jobs, pay their bills, communicate, and travel. For 99.9% of people, it’s not worth disconnecting entirely and living off the land somewhere in Montana.
But the current situation is untenable. We can’t keep giving away our data and allowing private companies or the government to take more and more of our liberties in the name of ad revenue or security.
Privacy is worth fighting for, and it’s going to take a collective effort if we mean to win.