Examining Privacy

On this page, you will discuss why privacy is good to protect, identify threats to your privacy, and consider reasons you might choose to give up privacy.


The search engine you use (probably Google, but there are others) obviously knows what questions you ask it. Less obviously, it also knows which links you click on. Even less obviously than that, it knows which links you hover your mouse over, and for how long. And it remembers!

What other kinds of information does Google collect?

Have you ever had to click inside a circle "to prove you're a human being"? The way it works is by recording how you move the mouse around the page, not just as you're reaching for that circle to click, but the entire time you're visiting the page. Each person has a different habitual mouse style. Google, which owns the company that offers the search-service to websites, keeps records for each person about how they move the mouse, as a sort of digital-era fingerprint. If you have a Gmail account, then Google reads your email, too. (They are quick to point out that no people at Google read your mail; just computer programs. Still, that information is part of your digital information, so Google knows whom you love, and what you say to each other.) If you use an Android phone, Google also provides cloud storage of your contacts and calendar. (If you use an iPhone, then it's Apple that collects your contacts and calendar).


What does Google do with the information it collects about you? One thing is to choose ads that they think you'll click on. Less obvious, and worse, it decides which search results to show you.

They do this mainly so you'll see how easy it is to get results you want. For example, if you always order books from Amazon, but your friend always orders from Barnes & Noble, then when you search for the same book, you'll get Amazon as the first link and your friend will get Barnes & Noble. That may not be a problem, but this is: If I get news from the liberal New York Times, and you read the conservative Fox News, then, over time, I'll see only ideas I already agree with, and you'll see only the ones you already agree with, very different from mine. This situation is called a search bubble. We're stuck in two different bubbles. That's not because Google wants to prevent us seeing each other's ideas, but because the same algorithms that give each of us our favorite bookstore also gives each of us our favorite news source.
  1. As a class, choose a politically controversial topic. Then, not in class but on the computer you usually use outside of school (so that your Google dossier is connected with that computer), do a search for that topic. Save the results you get, and at next class meeting see if everyone got the same results.

Both targeted advertising and search bubbles can be viewed as in your interest. If you must see advertising, isn't it better to see advertising that's likely to feel relevant? If Google knows where you are right now, it can suggest nearby restaurants you like, or ones similar to ones you like (and that pay Google for promoting them). The same reasoning applies to other big tech companies. Don't you want Netflix to recommend things you might like to watch?

People may really like targeting, up to a point, but not beyond. For example, some are happy with "Hey, it's lunch time and you're near Café Gratitude, where you've eaten before. Should I call them and order your usual?" but find "... and your friend Paul is there right now" creepy.

  1. Talk with Your Partner Discuss: Have you ever had that "creepy" feeling about something your phone knew about you?

Many people find it convenient that sites that sell things, such as Amazon, remember your credit card number so you don't have to type it in every time. Similarly, most people are happy for their browser to remember their password for each website. But credit card numbers and passwords are among the PII that you most want to keep protected against thieves. You're relying on the seller or the company that makes your browser not to have any security bugs, and you're also relying on them not to misuse your PII themselves.

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Your cell phone carrier is the biggest threat to your online privacy because it sees everything you do on your phone. You can choose the search engine you use, but you have few choices of cell phone carrier; it's probably ATT, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile. A particularly important kind of information that your phone knows is your physical location. You can turn off sharing your location with other companies, but you can't block your carrier from knowing your location; it needs to know which cell tower you're using and where that tower is. The information it has isn't just your location right now, but everywhere you've been since you got that phone.

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You may think if you don't have a Facebook account, Facebook knows nothing about you, but Facebook keeps dossiers even on non-users. It finds out about you because a friend who is on Facebook has you as a contact in their phone, or because your friend posted a photo that includes you, perhaps from an email you intended for that person alone. (Facebook doesn't even need your name with the photo, because it has a massive database of photographed faces and names.) And once the information is on the net, many people may keep or redistribute copies (e.g., "retweeting"), so it becomes impossible to delete all the copies of the information from the Internet. Of course, every website records who visited it, but if the site has a "Like" button, Facebook also knows who visited it—even if they don't click the button. And the special danger of social media sites like Facebook is that anyone can read the information shown, not just the big tech companies.

  1. Discuss:
    1. What are some reasons for giving up privacy in certain areas? Identify one area in your life in which you purposely give up privacy.
    2. Need some examples?

      Here are a few reasons people give up privacy:

      • Some website you want to visit requires you to sign up, and sends you an email to verify that it's really you.
      • You gain convenience from tailored ads and location services.
      • People today care more about online friendships.
      • Governments need to protect us against bad guys.
      • Businesses must verify eligibility (e.g., credit scores).
      • "If I'm doing nothing wrong, I have nothing to hide."

    3. What are the risks? Why have you decided that the benefits outweigh the risks?

In the early days of the Internet, the hackers who designed it didn't trust the government, so they tried to make sure that the police couldn't get your browsing history without a warrant signed by a judge. That all changed on 9/11/2001, when the World Trade Center was destroyed by hijacked airplanes crashing into its towers. Congress quickly passed the "Patriot Act," a huge collection of permissions for police and other government agencies to collect data about you. These days, many experts believe that the Patriot Act went too far in weakening privacy, but it's very hard to change it because politicians are afraid that if they vote to remove some of the privacy holes in the law, their opponents will say they're weak on terrorism.


Another big change in our understanding of the government's interest in the Internet came in 2013, when Edward Snowden, working for a contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA), leaked a large collection of NSA internal documents showing how the NSA and other agencies "listen in" on your digital conversations and actions, often illegally even under the loose Patriot Act rules. This led to widespread disapproval of the U.S. government spying on Americans (instead of spying on other countries, which is their job) and also raised concerns in other countries. This is economically important because people outside the U.S. don't want to do business with companies that store data in the U.S.

photo of Tim Cook
Image from Flickr: Austin Community College

Tim Cook (born 1960) became the chief executive officer (CEO) of Apple Inc. after Steve Jobs retired in 2011. Under Cook’s leadership, Apple launched the Apple Watch in 2014 and AirPods in 2016. Cook has been an active advocate for reining in international and domestic surveillance, improving cybersecurity, bringing back American manufacturing, and preserving the environment. In 2014, Cook became the first chief executive of a Fortune 500 company to publicly come out as gay. In 2021, Cook was selected as one of the Time 100, Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Article: Putting Our Bodies Online: The Privacy Risks of Tech Wearables

  1. Talk with Your Partner Discuss: What are some reasons for protecting your privacy? Why is privacy a good thing?
    Need some examples?

    Here are a few of many reasons for protecting privacy:

    • Avoid discrimination (e.g., based on HIV status)
    • Allow anonymous political speech
    • Protect personal security (e.g., against stalkers)
    • Restrain exercise of state power (e.g., require warrants)
    • Prevent spread of incorrect information
    • Part of human dignity

  2. IOC-2.A.5

    Discuss: Who is threatening your privacy?

    Describe how each of the following threatens privacy:
    • Governments
    • Corporations
    • People with cellphone cameras