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Data and Privacy: What Went Wrong for Internet User Data Rights?

Simon Coulthard September 29, 2023

9-minute read

User data and privacy protection is rightly a very modern concern.

Back in the 1990s when the internet was still in its infancy, people entertained idealistic notions about how it would grow into a force for good.

But thirty years on, this feels naive to say the least. The internet is dangerous, and not just because of the confidence tricksters, trolls, and predators roaming social media, message boards, and forums.

Simply put, the internet has become a privacy mess and you only need to look at cybercrime data to understand why this matters - in the US alone, there were 422 million cases of people who had their data compromised by breaches, leakages, and other forms of exposure (Statista).

That’s massive for a country of 330 million inhabitants. And yet the US doesn’t even make the top five countries for cybercrime attack numbers (that’s Columbia, China, Germany, Mexica, and Spain since you asked).

Data Privacy Comes First

Still, it’s enough for nearly 40% of Americans to declare that they’d abstain from sex for a year if it meant that they never had to worry about hackers, identity thieves, or breaches to their accounts.

And while the survey size (from Harris Poll for password management company Dashlane) of 2,000 people is too small for it to be an accurate barometer of society, it does still show that data and privacy concerns have bubbled up into public consciousness.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Every day, we read stories about data leaks and breaches. We also know that shady organizations collect data to manipulate public opinion for nefarious ends. People now know how the internet affects society, and are worried about what the future will bring.

So what happened? Why has the internet become such a mess for user data and privacy rights, and what is being done about it?

Data and privacy - how the internet became a mess for user data rights - TWIPLA website intelligence blog

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Data and Privacy: Early Warning Signs

When the internet first became publicly available during the 1990s, its advocates argued that it would pave the way for uninhibited information exchange that would connect the world like never before.

That would prove to be only partly true, But even then, there were signs of the data and privacy issues to come. Early adopters - and particularly those that understood how the tech worked - raised concerns about how users were unwittingly leaving data breadcrumb trails that opened them up to exploitation.

They warned about a future in which these digital footprints could be tracked, traced, and then traded. And unfortunately, they’ve been proved right - to a greater extent than they could have possibly imagined.

Today, data underpins the digital economy. It’s considered the world’s most valuable commodity - overtaking oil in the eyes of The Economist - and for proof you only need to look at the value of Google, a company that makes its money from selling user data.

Trojan Horses for Data Monetization

But even back in those early days, internet users were offered many “free” tools and services that were actually trojan horses for data monetization. People did start to cotton on however, leading to the popular axiom that, “if you’re not paying for something, then you’re the product and not the customer”.

Put another way, their personal information was becoming the currency for their online experiences. And as the internet’s advertising industry grew in size and power, so did the prevalence of tracking technologies that became ever more effective at collecting user data.

Users signed up to services and visited websites for the content or tools they provided. But digging below the surface revealed hidden mechanisms for analyzing, predicting, and manipulating user behaviors and preferences.

And while this passed mostly unnoticed at the beginning, it wouldn’t be long before people started taking notice.

Big Tech and User Data Aggregation

That data and privacy issues have grown into coffee table conversation fodder is a result of the rapid rise of Big Tech in the 2000s.

Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple began to dominate the digital sphere during this period. Their exponential rise was also driven, in no small part, by an ability to harness, analyze, and monetize vast amounts of user personal data.

What’s more, this era also witnessed a seismic shift in underlying digital paradigms. The “Big Four" began to not simply offer goods and services to their users. They started going further, by working to actively shape their digital experiences and preferences.

Data Aggregation

Central to this shift was the concept of “data aggregation”. Digital platforms collect large amounts of user data, which they then consolidate into something that they analyze granularly. This provides deep insights about customers, and you only have to watch The Social Dilemma to understand just how much they know about users.

Big Tech companies worked to collect data from multiple sources like search histories, online interactions, and purchase histories. And they'd then take this information and use it to create detailed user profiles.

These provide invaluable insights into the consumer habits, preferences, and behavior of their users. This enables these companies - and others - to deliver personalized content, which users want. However, this convenience comes at a price. Businesses could use these profiles to create highly targeted advertising.

Simply put, this data aggregation has spawned a myriad of data and privacy concerns, and particularly so since it's done without transparent user consent.

This is bad news because it opens users up to their personal information being both misused and exploited. It also feels highly intrusive, and has made many question the true cost of their online presence in the face of such unchecked Big Tech power.

Infamous Data and Privacy Breaches

The rise of Big Tech and data aggregation coincided with an unsettling increase in high-profile data breaches. These events showed that user data and privacy were at risk in our interconnected world.

It drove home an obvious point. When users give their data to digital giants and many other businesses, they directly increase their risk. These breaches also show that no platform, regardless of its size or technological advancement, is safe from threats.

Yahoo, Equifax, Data and Privacy

The Yahoo breach in 2013 and 2014 stands out as one of the most notorious. It affected billions of users. Attackers compromised information ranging from names and email addresses to more sensitive details like encrypted passwords.

Equifax, a major credit reporting company, suffered a similar fate in 2017. The breach exposed the personal information, including social security numbers, of 147 million people, casting shadows over the security measures of even the most trusted institutions.

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica

Furthermore, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018 raised the bar in terms of privacy violations. Rather than a traditional "hack," user data was harvested and manipulated for political advertising, impacting millions and emphasizing the intricate ways in which personal data can be exploited beyond mere identity theft.

Each of these incidents served as a grim reminder of the dual-edged nature of technological progress. While digital advancements enabled seamless connections and personalized experiences, they also opened Pandora's Box of potential threats. Users began questioning the safety of their online interactions and the trustworthiness of the platforms that had become integral to their daily lives.

Advocacy for Better Protection

In the wake of these - and countless more - infamous data breaches and growing public unease about data and privacy, advocacy for legislative reform intensified.

Activists, digital rights organizations, and even concerned tech insiders began demanding more accountability from Google and the rest.

Max Schrems and NYOB

Among these voices is Max Schrems, whose relentless pursuit of data privacy rights has seen real success. Schrems’ challenges against Facebook over data transfers led to landmark judgments, putting data transfer mechanisms between the EU and the US under the microscope.

Schrems, along with his organization NYOB - the European Center for Digital Rights - have been instrumental in highlighting the shortcomings of existing regulations and the sheer scope of data misuse by companies. Schrems I and Schrems II are now powerful precedents in global data security. But NYOB has filed a slew of complaints across Europe, targeting not only big tech like Facebook and Google but also ad tech industries and streaming services.

Nor has Schrems finished yet. While the latest EU-US Data Privacy Framework has legitimized EU citizen data transfer to the US for the moment, Schrems is planning to challenge this adequacy agreement in court. Time will tell whether he is successful again, but destiny is on his side given that there has been no change to the weaknesses in US data protection since he brought about the downfall of Privacy Shield a few years ago.

GDPR: A New Era for Data and Privacy

Such persistent advocacy was a clarion call for stronger, more comprehensive regulations. In 2018, the European Union led the way with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). And five years on, this is still the gold standard for personal data privacy rights. It not only imposed stricter rules on data collection, storage, and usage but also granted individuals greater control over their personal information.

Furthermore, penalties for non-compliance were stiff, compelling organizations to rethink their data-handling practices. Similar regulations began sprouting globally, reflecting a universal desire for online safety and accountability.

The tireless work of advocates combined with new regulations heralded the beginning of a new era, signaling a pivot from unchecked data collection to a more responsible digital landscape.

Data and Privacy: the Road Ahead

The digital landscape, molded by years of unchecked data collection and public demand for accountability, stands at a crucial juncture. It’s also clear that the path towards better user data privacy requires finding a balance between technological innovation and safeguarding personal data.

On one hand, data plays a vital role in driving innovations in various sectors. From personalized medicine to smart cities and ChatGPT, the benefits of data analysis can't be understated.

However, striking the right balance ensures that innovation doesn't come at the expense of personal privacy. This is where tools like differential privacy, which allows companies to use aggregated data without identifying individual users, can be instrumental.

Luckily, data privacy regulations are having the desired effect. They motivate businesses to assess their data practices. This has created demand for privacy-perfect analytics provision, with TWIPLA pointing the way towards analytics that provides businesses with the data they need, while also keeping user data safe.

But governments, too, have a pivotal role. They must continuously evolve and adapt regulations, ensuring they're robust yet not stifling. A one-size-fits-all approach could impede growth in fledgling tech sectors. Instead, sector-specific guidelines might offer a more nuanced solution, tailoring regulations to the unique challenges each industry presents.

Furthermore, fostering a culture of transparency between companies and users is paramount. Individuals should be empowered with knowledge about how their data is used, and firms should practice clarity in their data collection and processing methodologies.

Lastly, education will be a cornerstone. The onus is on institutions, governments, and organizations to ensure that digital literacy, including the nuances of online privacy, becomes a staple in curricula and public discourse. Only with informed citizens can we truly tread the path where technological prowess harmoniously coexists with unyielding respect for individual privacy.

Data and privacy - how the internet became a mess for user data rights - TWIPLA website intelligence blog

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Our advanced website intelligence solution will enable anyone to grow their website quickly - all while staying data privacy compliant!


That's Your Data and Privacy Mess!

Looking back, the trajectory of data and privacy online acts as a cautionary tale.

But it’s also a testament to the resilience of data privacy advocates like Max Schrems. It shows that individuals still have the power to hold Big Tech companies to task. This in itself is fascinating, and long may it continue.

The road ahead will be full of challenges. But there’s still hope that a secure, respectful digital world will eventually be realized.

If you want to join the crusade against data and privacy exploitation, choose website integrations that respect data rights.

TWIPLA is the leading example in the field of analytics. Our 2.5 million active website owners are benefiting from accurate data-driven insights in the knowledge that they're keeping their visitor data secure.

So sign up to TWIPLA for free and see what our website intelligence solution can do for your business!


Is Data Privacy a Problem?

Data and privacy are undoubtedly significant concerns in the modern digital world. The ever-growing collection and storage of personal information pose an increasing risk of unauthorized access, data breaches, and identity theft, as well as the general misuse of sensitive personal data. This pressing issue requires organizations and individuals to take action.

How Are People Being Tracked?

Businesses track internet users using various technologies, including tracking cookies, tracking scripts, user device identifiers, and also data analytics tools. They collect information about users' browsing habits, location, interests, and more. These businesses then use this data for targeted advertising, personalized content recommendations, and sometimes also share it with third parties, which raises genuine concerns about user security.

Is Data Privacy Good or Bad?

Data privacy is generally considered a social good because it safeguards the right of internet users to control their personal information online. It implies that users have a say in how organizations collect, use, and also share their data. However, this issue becomes more complex when we consider that businesses require data to provide users with the personalized customer experiences they expect, enhancing the internet's overall enjoyment. Therefore, it's crucial to find the right balance between data privacy on the one hand and reasonable data sharing on the other.

Why Are People Worried About Data Privacy?

People have valid reasons to be concerned about the relationship between their data and privacy for several reasons. Firstly, data breaches and cyberattacks can expose personal information, potentially leading to identity theft and financial fraud. Secondly, the misuse of data for targeted advertising can feel highly intrusive. Thirdly, rational concerns about online surveillance and the loss of anonymity exacerbate these issues. In simple terms, people would feel safer online with more control over their data.

Why Does Data Privacy Matter?

Protection of internet user data and privacy holds significance for several reasons. It upholds their fundamental rights and fosters trust in the digital realm, especially at a time when people harbor deep skepticism about online activities. Moreover, it serves as a deterrent against identity theft, fraud, and other dangerous cybercrimes. Furthermore, data privacy plays a crucial role in ensuring that businesses comply with laws and regulations like the GDPR and ePrivacy Directive in the EU. Lastly, it empowers users with control over their personal information, encouraging accountability and ethical data handling practices.

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