In Honor of Data Privacy Day, a Contemplation of Its Irony



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You might not have known, but Monday officially celebrated Data Privacy Day, ironically. The pseudo-holiday began in 2008, and was created by the United States and Canada after being inspired by Europe’s Data Protection Day. Now, around 50 countries across the world celebrate the unique holiday.

Jan. 28 isn’t just a randomly selected date either; it commemorates the signing of Convention 108 in Europe on Jan. 28, 1981, which marked the first binding treaty concerning data privacy. Now, companies across the world use the day to educate their employees about the importance of privacy, for individuals as well as organizations.

Stay Safe Online, an organization powered by the National Cyber Security Alliance, livestreams the event each year, which includes lectures and advice from technology experts. This year, these lectures focused on the new era of privacy, as well as the future for data privacy and technology.

Data Privacy Day is more relevant in 2019 than ever before, as the past few years have seen major controversies concerning companies breaching online privacy. Recently, Facebook’s data privacy scandal has been under the radar, after the company shared the data of 87 million individuals with British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

Since the firm worked with President Trump’s campaign, it’s clear that data interference has the power to influence individuals and even elections. Despite the controversy, most individuals are still using Facebook. Although some millennials are leaving the site in favor of other social media apps, Facebook owns many of them anyway, including Instagram. Though the largest data privacy scandal in recent years concerned Facebook, the unfortunate truth is that we can expect many more of these privacy breaches in the years to come.

Facebook isn’t the only company that has been known to violate the privacy of users. Recently, Google exposed the personal data of 500,000 users through their Google+ profiles, which the company did not disclose for months. Google has also been criticized for its formula, which is supposed to be objective, but often leads biased search results.

Despite these controversies, individuals would be hard-pressed to find a search engine that works as well as Google. Without an acceptable alternative, Google will continue to monopolize the internet.

Even 23andMe, a seemingly innocuous DNA kit company, has been under the radar for sharing user data with pharmaceutical companies. With such a wealth of DNA information, there are no limits to what the company could use this data for. It seems safe to say that in the present day, there is a risk of data privacy being breached with any data-using company.

Although social media use is on the rise for American adults, many individuals don’t trust the websites and apps they are using with their data. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey from 2017 shows that only 9 percent of adults surveyed felt “very confident” that social media companies protected their data privacy.

Another issue that was brought to light in the survey was that of data control; out of those surveyed, only 9 percent believed they had control over their own online information. The same survey found that almost 70 percent of adults in the United States use some sort of social media network, which means most of the country does not trust social media, yet chooses to use at least one website or app regularly.

As the rise of technology continues to hasten, one thing is made clear: different generations have varying views on data privacy. While older generations grew up without cell phones and laptops, younger generations are more plugged in than ever before. Worries about the dangers of technology for children and teens have been apparent since the early ages of television, but with new information about data privacy comes new concerns about the effects too much screen time can have on younger generations.

In a Pew Research study conducted in 2018, it was found that 54 percent of teenagers believe they spend too much time on their phones, and two-thirds of parents are worried about how much time their children spend in front of a screen. The concerns of teenagers regarding technology usually arise out of issues of social isolation and bullying, not necessarily data privacy.

Teenagers and college-aged individuals understand the risks of companies breaching their privacy online, but do they care? I can admit that, although I understand that social media and search engine companies can’t be trusted with my personal information, this knowledge does not affect the way I act online.

When an Instagram ad pops up about something I was talking about with a friend just an hour before, I get creeped out, but will I delete my Instagram account? Not anytime soon. In this age of technology, teenagers and millennials rely on social media sites to keep in touch with friends, network and create a personal brand. Whether we are concerned about our personal data or not, one thing is clear: social media sites aren’t going anywhere soon, and as long as they are around, individuals will use them.

These prominent data scandals and the apathy surrounding technology safety beg the question: Is Data Privacy Day pointless in 2019? In an interview with Forbes, Colin Truran, a technology strategist at Quest, outlined why he thinks the holiday needs to refocus.

“To celebrate a day like this, we should be calling on all organizations to be transparent and publish exactly what they’re doing to safeguard their customers’ data, making Data Privacy Day an annual check-in on the health of data protection and to ensure there are no hiding places for data misuse” Truran told Forbes. It’s not enough to merely bring awareness to the issue; companies need to take action and be more transparent regarding their use of individuals’ data.

Although millennials might not be as concerned with data privacy as they should be, the real issue lies with the companies themselves. Instead of placing the blame on individuals, we should be asking why these companies continue to disregard the privacy of countless people.

Data Privacy Day in its form today might not be as helpful as it could be, but drawing awareness to the issue might inspire individuals to take action and use their collective power to question these companies.

While apathy is a natural response when an issue seems out of our control, the future of data privacy protection is in our hands. Our online privacy will continue to be violated unless major actions are taken, and nothing will change unless the issue is taken seriously by everyone affected. Data privacy should be on our minds every day, not just on this holiday.

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