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Privacy in an Era of Surveillance

Abstract: Online privacy is a huge concern to many customers, internet users and telephone subscribers in this age of surveillance. Many individuals are simply oblivious of just how much of the online activity and personal data is being amassed and processed by the government and hackers. The Snowden revelations are just but an example of the far-reaching levels of online surveillance. Intelligence agencies, companies and hackers are not only pursuing surveillance over the world’s online communication systems but also seek to foster surveillance by undermining the security of communication technologies and the internet. Thus, the activities of these intelligence agencies, companies, hackers and the government threaten not only the prerogatives of citizens but also the pillars of a democratic society. While the government and intelligence agencies are tasked with protecting people through targeted surveillance, the scope of online surveillance must be strictly limited by the discernment of its impacts and it should not impinge on the privacy rights of people any more than necessary. This research explored the different forms of online surveillance, its impacts on online users as a privacy threat and proposed solutions to the problem.

Keywords: privacy, surveillance, encryption, online users, electronic devices


                                                                                                                                                   I.          Introduction

Scandals and revelations in the past few years have brought to people’s attention the massive online surveillance undertaken by intelligence agencies, hackers, mobile service providers and companies to record and analyze what people do on the internet, who they call, where they travel and what they store in the cloud among others. Moreover, hackers, companies and intelligence agencies intentionally sabotage security protocols by installing of malware on numerous gadgets worldwide, tapping undersea cables, utilizing intricate analysis tools to profile people and groups and using active attacks to override network infrastructure.

While online users fathom relatively little regarding the hidden activities happening when they use the internet, organizations are going far beyond the restricted level of access to conduct surveillance on people without their knowledge or permission [10]. Such occurrences leave one wondering whether there can be nonconformity, democracy or privacy online when the activities and words of people are obsessively observed by governments through intelligence agencies, companies and hackers [10]. People, governments, hackers and companies may reap immense political, economic and safety benefits from online surveillance, but there is also social, political, human and economic harm that can emanate from the exact activity.

The objective of this research was to explore the different ways through which intelligence agencies, hackers and companies can conduct online surveillance on people via discordant electronic devices, as well as, the impacts of  such surveillance as a threat to people’s privacy. This study also sought to provide viable solutions to the privacy threat of unauthorized and unknown surveillance carried out by intelligence agencies, hackers and organizations. A good example of a viable solution explored in this research include the security and crypto community investing in mechanisms that make all layers of the internet and electronic devices secure and fortify the level of privacy offered. This has the potential of formulating a natural barrier to mass surveillance while also bringing a more robust network infrastructure to a society that is increasingly reliant on the internet for most of their social and financial activities.


                                                                                                                                        II.         literature review

The goal of this research is to determine how people’s privacy is violated online through surveillance and the impacts of such surveillance so as to come up with suitable solutions that enhance the privacy of online users. This requires literature that documents the different ways of online surveillance and their impacts on people. The most common technique of identifying and tracking online consumer activity is the placement of cookies or small text files on a user’s hard drive that are then offered back to a website or domain owned by hackers, intelligence agencies or companies during subsequent visits by the consumer [6]. The invisible cookie software agents that track the personal data and browsing habits of online users are likely to continue multiplying in the coming years. Marketers, advertising networks and other data profiteers rely on cookies to learn more about people and what they are interested in purchasing [9]. Unless there are formal legal constraints on web-browser tracking, people are likely to continue accumulating cookies on their electronic gadgets.

Cookies have been increasing at an alarming rate over the years. Initially, an online user would get maybe a couple of cookies on accessing a site. However, today people get more than fifty cookies from different third parties, that is, data brokers, ad servers and trackers which they use to build big profile of people’s browsing history otherwise known as “big data” [8]. Such kind of surveillance is invisible to users and they barely have a clue of what is happening. However, while cookies may be increasing swiftly, certain governments are taking actions to prevent unauthorized online surveillance of people. For instance, the Obama Administration put forward a Privacy Bill of Rights that would entail a “Do Not Track” legislation to minimize online tracking of consumers [3]. Moreover, more web-browsers are building Do-not-track mechanisms into their systems. Since the Do Not Track concept has meager legal support, marketers, hackers, intelligence agencies and companies continue to practice surveillance with many claiming that tracking data is critical to business [9].

Location data is already making it increasingly difficult for people to travel around the world without other people knowing exactly where they are at any given time. While a person’s cellphone is the primary source of location data, the location that he or she posts on different social networking sites also reveal their location. Pinpointing an individual’s location will only get easier when other location-detecting devices such as smart watches, fridges and cars, as well as, Google Glass come online. With this location and personal data, advertisers can send people promotions for businesses that are near their location. The 2011 report by Gartner states that forty-one percent of customers are of the opinion that they would be concerned about privacy if they were in a position whereby they were to utilize mobile location services so as to acquire more targeted offers through loyalty and advertising programs [2]. Similar to cloud-based data, the legislation for acquiring location data from people’s mobile service provider are not strict. Thus, employer-owned devices can track users on and off the job. The profile data and consequences are based on the person’s geolocation, the place they are, the course