5 Privacy Myths You Should Stop Believing

Kirsten Luna from Holland, Michigan, uses her smartphone outside the U.S. Supreme Court after a major ruling on cell phone privacy by the court June 25, 2014
Source: Win McNamee/ Getty Images

There’s a lot to be concerned about when it comes to your privacy. The apps you use on your phone, the websites you visit on your computer, and all of the services that you share your information with day-in and day-out gather information about you and your activities. Most people know that — but most people also believe a lot of myths about privacy, which compromises their understanding of what data they’re sharing and who can access it.

Privacy and security are related concepts. When people talk about protecting their privacy, they generally mean being able to provide information to a system, a service, or an app without worrying that there will be negative consequences of sharing that information. For instance, you want to be able to share information about yourself with a service without worrying that the company will spy on you or will sell information about you to another party.

Security, on the other hand, is about how an app or a service is designed to offer value to the user, while using the information you share with it in a safe manner. For instance, that can mean that an app will only collect information that it needs, and will both keep your data safe and destroy it when it’s no longer needed.

The myths below deal with both privacy and security. All of them deal with fallacies that too many people believe about how their information is protected — or not protected. Read on to learn about these common misconceptions, and how to find out if your data might not be as secure as you think.

1. Using a private mode on my browser can protect me

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Every web browser has some kind of private or incognito mode. When that private browsing mode is on, the browser won’t record where you go, import your bookmarks, or automatically log in to your accounts. And when you close the browser window, the browser will get rid of most of the information that someone could use to retrace your steps.

However, a private mode won’t keep your identity anonymous. Whether you use Incognito Mode in Google Chrome or Private Browsing in Safari, it doesn’t protect your browsing from your Internet service provider, from the sites that you visit, from a law enforcement agency that happens to be watching your activity, or from ad networks that track your movement. Any files that you download while browsing in a private mode will remain on your computer or your smartphone after you close the browser.

2. Taking advanced steps enables me to browse anonymously

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

While you can take steps to improve your privacy and security while browsing the web, it’s currently not possible to be totally anonymous on the Internet. Anonymity properly means that you won’t be named or identified.

Even using Tor or a VPN doesn’t grant you full anonymity, because each service uses some kind of identifier to distinguish you from other users. (Even VPN providers that advertise anonymous services can log your name, your IP address, and other pieces of information about your activity.) An identifier might not really reveal anything about you, but it’s still a piece of information that could be connected to other data in order to identify you — if an attacker were determined enough.

Anonymity isn’t a realistic goal when you’re talking about browsing the Internet. But protecting your privacy is. Taking basic steps to protect yourself against untargeted, mass surveillance will greatly improve your privacy. But it’s important to remember that it won’t make your activity anonymous.

3. The emails I send and receive are secure and private

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Once you send an email, the message is out of your control. The recipient can do whatever he or she wants with the message, and generally, multiple copies of the message will be made in between your account and the account of the person receiving the message.

Most of the time, when you send an email or a Facebook message, it’s not going to be seen by anyone other than the intended recipient. But in the worst-case scenario, a data breach can make communications public, even those that you intended to be private.

Additionally, government agencies can access your email more easily than you might expect. The Stored Communication Act ensures that without a warrant or a court order, the government can’t get email stored on a server (like the servers used by your Internet service provider or by the provider of your cloud-based email service). But after six months, if the messages in question are still on the server, the government is free to access them without a warrant. Not many people know about that six-month window, and think that they get a lot more protection on the messages they archive in Gmail and other cloud services than they really do.

Another privacy caveat to be aware of is what happens when you use your work computer to access your personal email. Your employer can monitor your work email, but if you access your Google or Yahoo email account while at work, the lines get blurry. If you want your communications with your doctor or your lawyer to stay confidential, don’t send or access those emails on your work computer.

4. If I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t need to worry

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

Proponents of government surveillance argue that if you don’t have anything to hide, then you don’t need to be worried about who’s collecting information on you or snooping into your communications.

But as George Washington University Law Professor, Daniel J. Solove, noted two years ago, privacy compromises can have negative effects far beyond the exposure of illegal activity or embarrassing personal information. Privacy compromises can not only “provide the government with a tremendous amount of power over its people,” but they can also “make people vulnerable to abuse of their information and further intrusions into their lives.”

Solove writes, “Even if a person is doing nothing wrong, in a free society, that person shouldn’t have to justify every action that government officials might view as suspicious. A key component of freedom is not having to worry about how to explain oneself all the time.”

Even if you aren’t doing anything illegal, there are likely things that you’d like to keep private — such as the books you read, the movies you watch, the websites you visit, and the locations where you spend your time. Privacy is a basic need that’s all the more relevant given the rise of the Internet and the devices we use to connect to it. Don’t dismiss your right to privacy, even and especially if you aren’t doing anything illegal.

5. Other people don’t care about privacy, so why should I?

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

In the era of social networks, on-demand services, and cloud-enabled apps, it’s a common misconception that people aren’t concerned about their privacy anymore. In fact, the opposite is true (and it sounds pretty foolish to think you don’t have to worry just because you think no one else is). Everyone wants to have some control over how their information is collected and used; the ubiquity of data-hungry apps and services just makes it difficult to accomplish that.

A study published by the Pew Research Center earlier this year revealed that Americans feel that privacy is important in their daily lives, and that most of them have very low levels of confidence in the privacy and the security of records that are maintained by a wide variety of institutions. Further, the study found that “very few feel they have a great deal of control over the data that is collected about them and how it is used.”

What might surprise you is that only some Americans have taken even modest steps to protect their privacy, despite their concerns about how their data is being used. Most haven’t made changes to their Internet or mobile phone usage, and very few have taken advanced measures to browse the web (more) anonymously or to encrypt their communications. The research demonstrates that people do, in fact, care about privacy. They often just aren’t informed on or motivated enough to protect their privacy.

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