Do people still have privacy in the digital age?

Rufaro Madamombe Avatar
cybersecurity data protection privacy security

There’s a lot of talk about privacy online and what companies can or cannot do with our data. Now before we start talking about where the line is for the companies, let’s first establish common ground by using similar definitions of what privacy is.

Wikipedia: is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves, or information about themselves, and thereby express themselves selectively.

Oxford dictionary: A state in which one is not observed or disturbed by other people.

Alright, let’s keep those two definitions in the back of our minds while we take a look at why we’re even talking about it. Now back in the day like before the Internet, people had a lot of privacy. I mean, you could live anywhere and no one who you didn’t want to know would know what you ate for breakfast.

Someone could argue that if someone wanted to know what you had for breakfast then they could just hire a Private Investigator (PI) right? That’s certainly true if the person had the money. Imagine trying to track someone who is London by sending a PI from Zimbabwe. You need to take into account the costs of the travel to the country, the accommodation, the food, the transport the person will need to follow your target etc. It was possible but just out of reach for most people until the Internet and new Business models came along.

Now don’t get me wrong, the Internet is a great innovation but for everything convenient that sometimes comes as free value added product, there is always a hidden price to pay. This is especially true for the Internet. The Internet was invented as means to connect computers¬†worldwide to one network of information that could be easily shared and accessed. Amazing. There’s never been any time as today that you can just type something, click a button and learn something new or get an answer to your question.¬†

There was a problem with the world wide web. Even-though you could access any information, there was no way to know which one was more trustworthy than the other. That is until the search engines came along. The whole purpose of a search engine is to go through every website known to existence or at least one that wants to be known, add it to the list of all website, rank the websites based on certain factors and then give you the ranked websites when you search for stuff related to the websites.

As with any machine, it needs inputs in form of raw data in-order to produce some output after processing it. So where would search engines get the data they need to rank website. Well from you of course. When you search for example ‘how to make mealie meal porridge’, in case you like it but didn’t know how to. You get many results to choose from. Let’s say you choose a result from ZimboKitchen website, alone, your data might not be that helpful. However, if 500 other people search for the same thing and click that same website then the information there must be meeting the needs.

Remember this is just one factor we are looking at as the discussion is on privacy. Businesses saw that if they told you that they were observing you in order for you to get the most relevant search results then most people would run the other direction and not use the service. So back to our definitions, this act clearly violates privacy right? Yes. And I believe that it is these difficult to analyze or hidden observations that when done to millions of people end up really being a serious matter.

If it ended just on that then it wouldn’t have been much of a problem as the data collected wouldn’t have any of my personal information. Unfortunately, these days, in-order to use many digital technologies like electronic mail, social media etc, you need an account that has some information about you. This leads me to the problem that a colleague pointed out to me about the Wikipedia definition while we were discussing the matter.

Most of these companies have become pretty good at hiding behind such a well thought out definition as the Wikipedia one. Usually, you’ll be given the ability or option to leave out some information about yourself or choose not to be tracked. The problem is that it is not a KNOWN option. Take this example, you have freedom right? If you go outside your house for a walk and someone points a gun to your head what do you think. You’re probably thinking ‘this is insane, the person just took away my freedom to walk around the neighbourhood’, it’s insane because it’s a well known thing to the public that everyone has the freedom to take a walk outside their house.

Now if it is not public knowledge that there’s an option buried somewhere deep in the 55 page long terms of service that you agree to when you sign up for a service, then your privacy could be violated without you even knowing. Do you know how many people know that they can turn off browsing history on their Google account? Not everyone certainly. What’s more worrying is that the tracking comes on by default.

You might just have to go off the grid in order to keep your privacy. The problem is that most of our friends and family are connected and to stay in touch with them at cheaper price you have to be connected. Furthermore, some of the jobs these days require you to have an email account or if you’re doing stuff like marketing then you’d surely need an online presence for yourself.

Another way is to just give as much fake information as you can get away with. So why is it a big problem all of a sudden. It’s a big problem because these companies can now use your data not only to profit from it but they do it without letting you know. For example, you give your email, name, gender and age today to one company. 10 years later, you receive an advertising email to you from another company yet you didn’t give them the email. Chances are your email was sold for profit. By the way, this has already happened and is still happening.

Honestly, we no longer have 100% of our privacy as we’re getting tracked without knowing and wherever we go, we leave our digital DNA that someone comes and analyzes for their gain. It seems as I mentioned earlier, there is a trade off that we have to make in order to enjoy some of these great technologies that are a part of our daily lives now and often we trade our privacy.

What do you think? Are you okay being monitored by machine but not humans? Or do you consider machines/programs observing you a violation of your privacy.


  1. Sagitarr

    Please try and break your long sentences into shorter ones and use more punctuation to make your articles more readable and exciting (rather than long-winded). Proof-reading them before publication will improve them even more.

    It is good that you put an Oxford Dictionary definition of privacy which, personally, I can relate to. The Wiki one is too generic to the point of being almost meaningless but that’s my opinion of Wiki articles & search engines in general.
    One can be online and private if they choose to, up to a point. Its easy – avoid the social networks, or reduce your online presence to the barest minimum. Avoid volunteering information about yourself from cell numbers right up to email or home addresses. Similarly, avoid unsolicited messages, emails etc. With devices, one can turn off all undesired tracking, all messaging etc except in those instances when you need them. I like my security and privacy and have been lucky in that I have worked with security systems from the OS, HAL and through to 4GL languages and beyond on a variety of devices. But you can never rule out “snoopy” nerds inserting undesired or malicious code into systems for the heck of it and hey, with the love of money being what it is, demanding some to undo this too. By extending computers to all and sundry, Bill Gates did not, in my view, anticipate the level of servitude that users would be exposed to by the machines and hackers. …. and with the advent of “social” networks, I doubt that the architects of these systems expected the gross naivity of users in posting anything and everything about themselves, photos and videos included. Thus they have shackled themselves to a beast from which they can’t break out (infinite loop) – and are now at the mercy of the cyber pirates aka hackers. More chaos awaits us as the internet of threats (oops “things”) shapes up.

    1. Rufaro Madamombe

      Thanks for the feedback on writing, I think they are so long because sometimes I write like i’m talking. Will take note and improve.

      Interesting points you mentioned there. Internet of Things will be interesting to see how they will affect our privacy.

  2. Steve Carr

    Privacy is every Americans right. Freedom of speech and freedom of the internet,. We must keep the internet free from the government. Stop the Government from spying on everybody. So stop using the spying search engines, us the unbiased no tracking search engine that owns its own search results try it have a nice day