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Time for lockdown on your privacy

The fuss about Facebook and WhatsApp violating user privacy is only the tip of the iceberg – but you can arm yourself with knowledge, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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So you’re considering switching from WhatsApp to Signal and Telegram because Facebook is about to connect the dots between your WhatsApp usage and your Facebook behaviour?

Well, then you should also consider abandoning almost every free service you use on your smartphone or the Internet. The reality is that securing privacy on the Internet is a project every bit as complex, frustrating and self-defeating as getting off the electricity and telecommunications grid. The latter is futile, and the former is not only expensive, but also requires serious engineering and electrical expertise or advice.
 
Price-wise, privacy is only as expensive as the cost of using paid-for alternatives to the free service that use you as their product. But the hidden cost is in the loss of seamless communications with your social and family circles, and ready access to a world of “free” content.

This issue came into sharp focus in the past week, when Google “banned” third-party cookies, the horribly innocuous and inappropriate term for code that is used to track your activity across the World Wide Web. The move by Google was a knee-jerk reaction to a similar decision by Apple.

The latter went further: it declared that it would ask users of apps that collect their personal data – in particular Facebook – if they wanted to continue allowing those apps to collect such data. In other words, users could have the audacity of deciding if they wanted to be tracked.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg treated this as an attack on the very foundations of capitalism. Well, he would: targeted advertising earns Facebook more than $80-billion a year. He argued that collecting user data made for a better experience. He did not mention that it was a better experience primarily for advertisers, and that it meant users would find themselves targeted with product pitches that would be so personal, they would be downright creepy. You’ve probably been there.

The public debate between the two has, in effect, positioned Apple’s Tim Cook on the side of the angels and Zuckerberg on, well, the other side. Google CEO Sundar Pichai also wants to avoid the dark side, especially given his employer’s founding slogan, “Don’t be evil” (now conveniently updated to “Do the right thing”).

However, there is a vast difference between the two approaches. Google may be banning third parties from using its resources to track users, but that will make little impact on its own ability to keep tabs on those same users. While cookies are a generic form of code that can be tracked across any web site carrying advertising, Google enjoys the proprietary ownership of many of the platforms on which users operate: most notably, the Chrome browser, YouTube video content, the Gmail email service, the Android operating system, and its front end, the Play Store.

So if you’re going to abandon a specific app or platform, it would be useful to know what personal data you are still leaving on the table. 

Go to the next page to read what you surrender.

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