The Internet Knows Everything About Us: But Do We Care?

There’s no doubt that the Internet has transformed our lives and opened up a world of possibilities. We can access our bank accounts in real-time, keep in touch with people who are scattered to the four winds, and we have access to information 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The Internet is our window to the entire world, and our digital footprint grows longer by the day. But what is that costing us?

Seemingly every day we wake up to a new story about some government or another (cough *America* cough) that is bypassing the system and getting access to every detail of our lives. Google? Tick. Yahoo? Tick. Foreign leaders? Tick. Next stop—the world!

Like the arguments you hear when schools start to search kids for weapons, you can say that people who have nothing to hide shouldn’t be worried about having their private information available to authorities. But it seems to me that we’re slowly inching closer to a world where everyone is guilty until proven innocent. I mean, sure, if governments really need private information to identify terrorists, then go ahead. But how many terrorists will you find by knowing everything I’ve ever Googled? Just because information is available and relatively easy to access, does that mean that the government should be using it? Where do we draw the line here?

The worst case scenario for most of us isn’t that we’ll be found out as terrorists—it’s the culture of mistrust that’s taking hold. For the sake of finding the few, the minutiae of all of our private lives is being held hostage.

And conspiracy theories aside—what happens if our Internet escapades get into the wrong hands? One keystroke, one weak point, and hackers could have access to our private information, no matter where it resides. For me personally, I know that the worst case scenario would be someone accessing my credit card (in which case; welcome to my debt, suckahhhs!), or revealing embarrassing things about me (yes, my “secret recipe” for cookies is just a jazzed-up version of Nestle Tollhouse).

But I know that for some people, the release of seemingly innocuous information about them could have dire, even life-threatening consequences. What about the woman who has been searching for divorce lawyers, in a desperate attempt to escape her violent partner? What about the home address of someone on witness protection? What about parents’ searches for rehab facilities for their child? For these people, having their Internet life exposed could have painful and very real consequences.

For that matter, how comfortable do we feel about companies accessing our information for their own uses? Facebook, Instagram, and now Google can all access our profile photos and use our faces to endorse their products to our social networks. So we can have our face plastered over advertising campaigns that we may never have conceived of (let alone approve of) before we casually pressed the “like” button. And is that OK with us? Does me saying that I “like” certain companies also mean that I’m happy to hawk their products for them?

And should companies be allowed to use my personal information to target their advertising campaigns at me? I’ve downsized this year, and many of my friends and family have been getting on the baby train. And for months now, my Facebook advertisement panel has been a jarring mash-up of celebrities’ weight loss secrets, set against a backdrop of pregnancy advice websites. Facebook seems to think I’m trying to lose weight (not true) AND that I’m pregnant (also not true). Are the ads relevant to my life? Kind of. But they also give me a bad case of the creeps. And it makes me wonder how that kind of marketing strategy would affect vulnerable people—like people talking about their weight because they have an eating disorder. Or people suffering from infertility, treated each day to “the best online store for all your baby’s needs!”

It’s not just how our personal information is being used, it’s how we’re being encouraged to share it so quickly, without any pause for thought. The “seen” function on Facebook is a particular bug-bear of mine. If I send someone a message and I see that it’s been “seen,” I wonder why they haven’t replied. Did they run out of time? Do they not care? Why-oh-why haven’t they replied yet? But when I’m the one reading a message, I feel the pressure to reply instantly because that damn “seen” function has given me away. I panic: I say the first thing that comes to mind. My loved ones are getting responses that are the Facebook equivalent of a knee-jerk reaction, and I hate that.

I tell myself that my information is probably safe because so many other people have their information out there; what are the odds that it will come back to bite me? I sign up for services that have Terms and Conditions so lengthy that they would require a law degree and a full day’s reading to interpret. I tell myself there’s no point even glancing at them: I need the service, and handy little disclaimer at the end that states “these Terms and Conditions can be changed at any time” makes it seem like it wouldn’t be worth my time anyway. I sign my rights over to these big businesses, because the only other option is to become a recluse.

In world where my voice is stronger than ever, where I can announce my views to all and sundry at the click of a button, I feel powerless. I tell myself that the worst case scenario won’t happen to me, and that we’re all protected from massive invasions of our privacy by legislation, by the power of the people. That we can choose how much information we give up, and to whom. Not because I think that I or the internet are invincible, but because I simply can’t unplug.

I can’t quit Facebook because I need my lifeline to my family and friends. I need the answers that the Internet holds, I want to stay connected—but I don’t necessarily want my personal privacy to be the price I pay for it. And so I wonder. What is the Internet’s expansion into our daily lives really costing us? Where do we draw the line for who can access our information, and what they use it for? And at the end of the day—do we care enough to do anything about it?

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