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This article was published on September 13, 2011

Do we really care about our online privacy?

Do we really care about our online privacy?
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

According to an infographic shared on Search Engine Journal, over 2 million photos are posted to Facebook during any given 20 minute period, 7 billion pieces of content are shared weekly and 3,500 images are uploaded to Flickr every minute.

With these stats helping to demonstrate that an immense amount of personal content is being shared online, you would think that people would be concerned about ensuring that information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, or that it can’t be used or exploited for advertising purposes. The reality, however, is very different.


Facebook has to be the biggest proof that the majority of people online simply don’t care about their privacy, as long as they’re getting what they want in return.When Facebook makes major changes to its privacy settings, which are usually never in favour of its users, some express outrage, blog posts are written, status updates are copied and pasted, and threats of boycotts are made. And then it all dies down and people go back to using Facebook exactly how they used to, and exactly how they will continue to, because it would seem that they feel what they are getting out of using the social network makes up for yet another little loss in their privacy.

In fact, last year, when Facebook made major changes to its privacy policy, Facebook revealed that only 35% of its users actually updated their settings following the announcement.

While Germany may be one of the few countries that is forcing Facebook to get in line with their own privacy standards, I wonder how many German Facebook users, or users anywhere else in the world for that matter, really care.

Browser extensions

When installing a Chrome extension or Firefox plugin how many of you actually look at the permissions you are granting to that extension? While Chrome and Firefox force developers to share that information publicly, I have my doubts as to how many people even notice it, let alone are actively concerned.

Using Chrome as an example, extensions can request certain permissions when they are installed on your computer. This can mean anything from accessing all the data on your computer and websites you visit, to tabs and browsing activity on your browser. What most people probably don’t realize is that granting permission to access all data on their computer means they can access their webcam and read personal files. Most of us don’t think twice when we install an extension on our computer, and to be fair, I highly doubt developers are sitting there sifting through the data that falls right into their laps. But the fact remains that by granting permission for an extension to access your data on all websites, means that an extension developer out there potentially knows every single website you’ve ever visited. It’s a sobering thought.

So what should you do about it? When installing an extension take a moment to read the information that’s been provided, take a moment to find out who this developer is, see how many times the extension has been installed, read the reviews, and make an informed decision.

Terms of service

How many of us actually read a website’s terms of service (TOS) when we’re signing up? I’d wager a bet to say that most of us “agree” to the terms when we check that little box that we agree, without knowing what exactly it is we’re agreeing to. We could be signing away our first-born for all we know, but we do it without a moment’s hesitation.

While it’s unlikely anyone is after your first born, there’s definitely been the occasional uproar when an online service goes out of its way to exploit your content. It’s definitely worth taking note of a site’s TOS particularly when you’re uploading photos to that site.

Just look at Twitpic’s recent TOS debacle, where any image uploaded to the photo-sharing site, while still belonging to the user, is perpetually licensed to Twitpic – it had professional photographers vowing never to use the service again. A quick search on Twitter today will show that they are clearly in the minority.


When Gawker was hacked at the end of last year, a file was released containing members’ usernames and passwords. The fact that easily-cracked passwords like 123456 and password topped the list of the most common choices is definitely evidence that people are not at all concerned with their information being revealed. Some may argue that the password you choose for a site like Gawker certainly isn’t the same as a password you’d choose for your bank or email account, and while that’s true, when over 3,000 people choose the 123456 as their password, it is nothing but an obvious disregard for online privacy.

The Gawker password debacle also demonstrated the need to use a different password for each service you use. How many of you that do use the same password for each service went out and changed passwords after reading the story?

Why don’t we care?

In this age of information, we clearly don’t seem to care much anymore about who has what information about us. Yes, we get a scare whenever a new major hack is announced, and possibly check to make sure we weren’t among the unfortunate users whose personal data fell into the wrong hands, but that’s about it. We don’t stop using the services, we don’t really do anything at all, beyond beefing up our passwords. So why is that?

Social media has had a huge role in changing our attitudes towards privacy. Yes, we’re always quick to jump on the Facebook-bashing bandwagon but other than that, we’re still logging on to see who tagged us in their photos, who invited us to what event, and to check out our friends’ latest news. With sites like Facebook and Twitter becoming completely mainstream, we suddenly find ourselves in the position of sharing all sorts of information about ourselves, even at times without knowing it.

Social media has brought out the narcissist in us, and we’ve become programmed to share, and at times even over-share (ask Demi Moore and her back). Despite merciless mocking, we still share what we had for lunch on Twitter. We let the world know when we arrive at our destination. Some of us even share our daily horoscope with each and every one of our followers, because somehow we’re convinced that they care. It would seem that this need to share has trumped anything else, including our privacy. How many times have you stumbled across a Facebook profile where all of that user’s photos are visible for the entire world to see? And it would seem that they simply don’t care.

A lot of us are probably also convinced that we won’t be targeted. The “It wouldn’t happen to me” attitude won’t get us anywhere, as was proven by every single one of Sony’s attacks, which happened so many times we’ve pretty much lost count, as well as Gawker’s, myBart‘s, and LastPass‘.

Awareness is key

Aside from actually reading a site’s TOS before merrily accepting them, there are other small precautions we can take to guard our online privacy. Take the time to choose passwords that are not easily cracked and consider using a password manager. Keep up-to-date with privacy concerns by following sites like the Sophos blog, Naked Security.

Checking default settings on each site you sign-up to is the first step towards making sure that you know what you’re getting yourself into. If the site, extension or app is providing you with information about how it works, and how it accesses or uses your personal data, take the time to read it. If you see something that doesn’t look right, get in touch with the developer. Write a blog post about it. Talk about it on Twitter.

At the end of the day, the only true weapon that users have when it comes to their own privacy is awareness.

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