De oorlog tegen privacy

How relevant is data protection to people who are not currently in charge of a quoted company? How much data tracking do Facebook, Dropbox, Gmail, WeTransfer and our smartphones themselves do? Danny Mekić, fellow student at the faculty of law as well as entrepreneur, consultant and internet expert, at first blush doesn’t seem very worried about his anonymity on the web. His website address is, and if you google ‘danny’ in the Netherlands, that website is the first thing you’ll find. And yet, digital privacy on the individual level is one of his main subjects of discussion.

Concisely put, the problem is: “Instead of talking about the not particularly interesting-sounding notion of ‘privacy’, it would be better to consider this a matter of freedom. The freedom to do as you please, within the boundaries of the law, of course. The government is taking that freedom away from us by limiting our privacy more and more, but doesn’t adequately explain why it would be necessary to keep such a close watch on us. Not to even mention how there’s nothing to keep that surveillance in check.”

Danny says an often-used but poorly supported argument that the government uses to justify these practices is that they would be necessary to combat terrorism. How many people a year die as a result of terrorist attacks, exactly? And what freedoms are we giving up, exactly? “The governments deprive us of freedom in such a way that we don’t notice it and we don’t really know much about it. We citizens can’t tell whether giving up that freedom is effective, nor what exactly we are giving up.”

A common argument in the personal data protection debate is the idea that ‘I don’t have anything to hide’. Why would Obama care if I’m having a row with my girlfriend? It’s an understandable point of view, Danny says, but think ahead a bit further. “They’re equipping entire data centres in deserts to store our data for now and for the future too. Of course we trust Obama, but what if ten years from now some dictatorial regime gets its hands on our data? All of our data?”

Danny calls for a ‘democratic debate’ on the limitation of privacy. At the moment there aren’t nearly enough safeguards for privacy and data protection, again because of the international aspect. “When personal information is stored abroad or in the cloud, it’s often unclear what parties have access to that information and what laws apply to it. At this moment, we are in a situation where we in Europe depend to a large extent on American platforms to which American laws apply. That means we foreigners don’t have much right to privacy – contrary to the Americans themselves.”

Once again, international co-operation seems to be the solution, but until that can be established, there is also a number of things we could do on our own. Danny promotes the idea of a personal cloud for every household. After all: “The average Dutch household has a very fast internet connection, and our modems are on 24/7: why not equip those modems with a protected hard drive, and store some of our own data, encrypted, on protected sections of our friends’ hard drives?” Aside from that, it’s a wise idea to encrypt your data well. A number of tips:

  • Never use the same password in more than one place.
  • Change your password regularly.
  • If you can avoid it, do not use public Wi-Fi networks (the ones you can connect to without a password needed to set up the connection).
  • Try to visit websites through an https-connection as much as possible (you can tell because the address bar will be green or there will be a padlock icon, depending on your browser).
  • Be aware what information you willingly put on the internet and be cautious with cloud services – particularly the free ones. They often ask for permission to (re)use your data.

And remember that if an online service is ‘free’, that usually means you’re not the customer, but the product. This applies to every email you send via Gmail, every photo you share on Facebook and every location you register on Foursquare.

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