Is there really such a thing as privacy when you partake in the most pervasive means of sharing information in the world?

Read time 4min 20sec

Remember when the creator of the world's largest Web 2.0 site said privacy was basically a thing of the past? That was in January 2010 - a notion I would not dispute, but arguably a statement about two decades overdue.

From the time the first page on the Internet became publicly available, purportedly on 6 August 1991, people have been propagating, or sharing, information. That public page led to the phenomenon of the World Wide Web - a plethoric mesh of information that is unceasingly updated and viewed.

The nature of the Web is such that we leave a trail of information in the public domain.

Bonnie Tubbs, journalist, ITWeb

According to the trusty Oxford, “Web” is defined as: “1. a network of fine threads constructed by a spider from fluid secreted by its spinnerets, used to catch its prey; 2. a complex system of interconnected elements”; and the pertinent, far less sinister-sounding “3. the Internet”.

The Web has changed the manner in which (and how profusely and freely) we communicate. The problem is, often we are not only communicating with the intended recipient/s, the nature of the Web is such that we leave a trail of information in the public domain - a virtual footprint if you like - whenever we cast notation across the global cyber network that is the Internet.

Cyber safeguard

You only have to look at the extensive list of problems and threats that can materialise (and indeed have) as a direct result of opening up access to personal information - including social engineering and mischief - to appreciate that, with using the Internet comes the need for protection.

And let's face it - garnering information about almost anyone who is a part of the world's online society nowadays (about a third of the world's population) isn't exactly drawing blood from a stone. Whether through ignorance, a momentary lapse of judgement, inebriation or plain impulsiveness - most of us have, at some stage, put personal information out there in cyber space, willy-nilly.

Last week saw a significant step towards addressing the need for protection being taken in SA, when the National Assembly voted on and submitted its second reading of the much publicised Protection of Personal Information Bill (POPI). While South African organisations have in the past upheld a level of data protection protocols, and the right to privacy is firmly enshrined in SA's constitution, legislation that lends a practical element has previously been lacking.

So kudos to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development for taking a step towards protecting South Africans online - but could this be too little, too late? That said - if it is too late, the blame by no means rests solely on our government's back. Many of us flout our constitutional right to privacy by spewing personal information across multiple platforms - and then updating it on a regular basis.

Privacy fallacy

Now, with the enactment of POPI (expected by the end of the year), it behoves companies to implement measures to protect the information we feed them, insofar as they are able to - but ultimately, we, as individuals, ought to be vigilant as to what we share, how and where we share it.

But with the proliferation of social media, society's insatiable appetite for data and info, and the array of information requirements so many services and applications demand, do we really stand a chance? And how many Internet users really give a continental about privacy anyway?

While many are likely to take certain precautionary measures to ease their minds, especially amid news of breaches - the catalyst that spurred the action in the first place just goes to show that total control of information in cyber space is an illusion. We are duping ourselves into believing we can avert the likes of the brains that executed, for example, the recent LinkedIn and Yahoo hacks.

Anyway, I think for the most part there are just too many alcoves - both hidden and open - to constantly have to consider, like geo-tagging, onerous fine print, disclosure by third parties and the human element of carelessness or forgetfulness. I don't know about you, but I sure cannot remember what I shared or where I shared it, in my excitement at discovering the information highway.

Perhaps Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was right - society is becoming less private, more accustomed to public exposition: “...all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

It strikes me as unlikely that we will ever be able to control what we can't fully quantify.

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