The Grand Signal

A digital magazine covering the intersection of technology, human rights and social change.

Terms and conditions may apply – Why you should care about online privacy

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia |

We were lucky enough to catch a pre-screening of the documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply last Friday night in San Francisco. It gave an excellent overview of the insidious data collection policies that big technology companies are doing today on its users. After talking to a few other viewers after the documentary, many of them came out with a strong sense of why they should care about online privacy. These people came from various backgrounds, from students interning at prominent technology companies to those working in public policy. We thought we’d share some of the key takeaways from the movie and shed some of our own insight on this growing problem.

The core issue surrounding internet privacy is building awareness among the general population of what these companies are exactly doing with your data. What goes on in the backend when your share things on Facebook, Twitter, or Amazon, is relatively unknown to the average user. There are many people who argue that they have nothing to hide and are comfortable with technology giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon using their data to improve their user experience, and if need be, are fine with government having access to their information to ensure national security. Opposingly, there are those on the other spectrum who are completely against these practices without consent. The truth is that everyone has something that, if made public, would be detrimental to their social and professional life. For those who still think they having nothing to hide, think about whether you’d be comfortable showing everything on your Facebook account to your parents? How would you feel if someone could read all your personal text messages with friends and family?

You know those superfluous terms and conditions that you never read when signing up to most online services? Well, they were originally created in 1986, many years before young internet users were even born. When you agree to those terms, you’re giving the company the right to sell your data to a third party, and with recent news surrounding the NSA, you also give access to the government of your data in order to prevent ‘terrorist’ related attacks. The fact is that many of these companies have built successful business models around user data, and so they have a monetary incentive to gather as much data from you as possible to then sell it to a third party who’s willing to pay for it. What’s most concerning is that history has shown that oppression always begins with the government justifying questionable actions with protecting its citizens. Sure, showing targeted ads based on our user behavior may actually be useful, but if that data feel into the wrong hands it could easily be used against us. Data is going to become the new gold, and whoever controls it will have an immense amount of power.

Technology is becoming more pervasive as more and more people across the world are connecting to the web. The fact that the government at this point is setting the precedent that they can do essentially whatever they want with it without our consent, what’s stopping them from doing even more malicious things if people don’t start to question their practices? If we look at the world today, digital rights abuse is happening all across the world – from internet censorship in the Arab Spring, to PRISM, and the centralized monitoring system in India. These problems are real and global, with profound consequences if left unchecked.

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