There is no such thing as privacy on the Internet

Published on 2021-09-08. Modified on 2023-10-29.

As soon as you step outside your house or apartment, you're located in the "public arena" where there is no privacy. I don't mean juridically speaking, but practically, as everyone can see you. Now, why would you think it is any different with the Internet!?

I am very much against companies tracking users without their consent and governments and institutions that spies on people without a very justified reason. A basic privacy is a fundamental human need. It's part of our nature.

We all know and understand the fact that once we move from a private domain into the public domain, there is very little privacy. That's a natural part of a social life. We need to live together and interact with other people.

I had an interesting conversation a while back when a person asked me some questions about "privacy" on the Internet. At some point during the conversation I explained what technically happens when you connect a device to the Internet, whether it's your computer, your phone, or something else, and the person was quite surprised. The very idea that connecting devices together somehow makes them traceable through each other was not something the person had ever though about, simply because he only uses technology, he doesn't understand it.

I believe it's a really good idea to basically think of the Internet as an absolute public place. That way you will act on the Internet as you would in normal public life, and that is what you should be doing.

If you browse at a website on the Internet, it's like you're stopping on the street and looking through the window of a shop. Everyone can see that you're looking at the shop.

If you chat with someone online through a social networking platform, or by email, it's like you're standing on the street chatting with someone. Unless you talk in a cryptic language nobody knows, anyone close by can listen in on the conversation. Hence, unless you use peer-to-peer encryption online, anyone can listen in on or read the conversation.

As soon as you walk out of your house or apartment into the public, there is a chance that some creep will follow you in order to spy on you or harm you. The same can happen on the Internet. And if you count advertisement firms as "creeps", which some of them truly are, then you run into those as soon as you start surfing the Internet. Perhaps your ISP and/or government is also logging all your online activities.

In the public, if you want to hide your identity, you can take on a disguise and hope that nobody will recognize you, but as you know, you might be recognized anyway. The same can happen on the Internet. Maybe you felt the need to use a VPN service, only to discover that it could not be trusted. Maybe you have been using encryption for years only to discover that there where a weakness in the encryption algorithm or in the tools you have been using.

Just the other day it was discovered that Protonmail, despite the fact that they have been promoting themselves as very privacy respecting and "using no logging", in fact cannot be trusted. And they where very quick to remove their statement, "We don't log your IP", from their website.

But there is something even more important to understand and remember when it comes to privacy on the Internet. While a stranger on the street will most likely quickly forget you, the Internet forgets nothing. When you browse a website, that browsing gets logged and in most cases stored away and never destroyed.

This is when many people will say, "Well, so what? I have nothing to hide!" Such a statement illustrates a great amount of ignorance.

On 27 March 1943, the municipal register of Amsterdam was attacked by a cell of the Dutch resistance in the hopes that they could destroy the register before it fell into the hands of the Germans. A lot of register cards survived the attack and the Germans found the register very useful as it contained details of about 70.000 Jews in Amsterdam. It also served as a very useful tool for cross-checking identity cards. Most likely none of the people contained in the registry had anything to hide.

Municipal register of AmsterdamMunicipal register of Amsterdam after the attack

If there is one thing history teaches us, it is that a lot of really bad shit can happen in a very short amount of time!

My point is this: Stop thinking about the Internet as a place for privacy. It's impossible to fully implement privacy on the Internet due to the way devices communicate with each other.

This doesn't mean that you shouldn't use privacy protecting technology, it just means that you should adjust your thinking to the fact that the Internet is public by its very nature.

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