Firms and governments use the internet to spy on us. Should we care?

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Our increased reliance on the internet and smart tech means we are watched more than ever before. Is that something to fight – or is our concept of privacy just outdated?

Technology 11 December 2019

woman sitting at desk with computer screens

Laurence Dutton/Alamy Stock photo

REPORTS of the death of privacy are nothing new. In 1890, prompted by the “deep-seated abhorrence of the invasions of social privacy” made possible by Kodak cameras, US lawyers Louis Brandeis and Samuel Warren wrote an influential tract called The Right to Privacy that attempted to delineate the boundary between personal and public spheres.

For most of us, a degree of privacy is important, even if we may struggle to say why. “Privacy is far from being dead,” says digital anthropologist Jennifer Krueckeberg at the University of Hamburg in Germany. “It is an existential need, a condition in which we feel safe, comfortable and secure.”

In the internet era, invasions of privacy come from two main directions. First, large parts of the web have been engineered by commercial companies to monitor our every online move in the name of profit: Google, Facebook and the like make their billions by selling advertising targeted to desires we may not even be aware we have. Second, governments and other public bodies have begun to take advantage of the tools of mass surveillance the internet provides in the name of better public security.

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In the first instance, we can arguably all choose whether to buy in to surveillance or not. If we do, our reward is better services, whether improved search results or more relevant recommendations. In practice, however, the near-monopoly positions of certain big tech firms make it very difficult for you to avoid giving them your personal data, and we have only very rudimentary control over how it …

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