What is privacy?

In the context of computing, privacy means that your personal data isn’t seen by anyone whom you don’t want to see it, and isn’t used by anyone in ways you don’t approve of. Personal data means both information about you (e.g. your name, email address, or phone number) and also about what you do (e.g. which websites you visit, what you post online, who you talk to, or what you buy).

What are the privacy risks on the Internet?

On the modern Internet, there is enormous pressure against an individual user’s privacy. Advertisers, websites that show ads, and the ad tech platforms between them all have a monied interest in “targeting” ads. That is, showing the right ads, to the right people, at the right time. Targeting ads this way means people are more likely to click and buy something, and thus that the advertisers, websites, and ad tech platforms all make more money. Most ad targeting relies on “profiles” of Internet users: information about their interests, location, and spending habits.

There’s a whole industry (called the “surveillance economy”) devoted to building these profiles by collecting and correlating personal data across a variety of sources. The sources can include browsing activity (collected by trackers), purchase history (often collected from credit card transaction data), social media, public records, and more.

The surveillance economy is highly complex, and much of how it works is hidden from Internet users. People often don’t understand what they’re giving up as they browse the Web, so they can’t give informed consent to everything that’s happening to their information. It’s also virtually impossible to completely opt out of data collection.

To make matters worse, the companies that collect your personal data don’t have strong incentives to be careful with it. It’s not their information, so if it leaks, they aren’t really affected. Putting in the effort to rigorously protect your information doesn’t benefit them, so they generally don’t do it unless they’re forced to by law or regulation.

Why is privacy important?

Everyone has a natural desire to keep some things to themselves. Respecting this desire for privacy is particularly important on the Internet, because there’s so much financial incentive to violate people’s privacy, and so many ways to do it.

You probably wouldn’t want your browser history to be public. However, information about your browsing activity is almost certainly in some dataset already, circulating in the surveillance economy. That idea probably feels invasive to you; that’s why privacy is important.

But it isn’t just about personal comfort level. If malicious actors get their hands on your information, they may use it for identity theft, which can cost you money and disrupt your life. The surveillance economy companies that collect your data often don’t put much effort into keeping it safe, so it’s important to stop them from collecting data in the first place.

Your personal information belongs to you, and yet the surveillance economy makes money from it, without your involvement and with little regard for the potential harms. Protecting privacy means pushing back against this system.

Learn more about computer security, and the difference between privacy and security online.

How can I protect my privacy?

One easy way to protect your privacy is to use a browser, like Brave, with strong privacy protections. The Brave Shields feature blocks third-party cookies, trackers, and fingerprinting by default—all of which are techniques that websites commonly use to collect information about you.

When you’re connected to an untrusted Wi-Fi network or ISP, you can use a virtual private network (VPN), such as Brave VPN, to protect your privacy. A VPN prevents anyone else on the network, including administrators, from seeing your activity; all they’ll see is that you’re using a VPN.

It’s also a good idea to use a private search engine—like Brave Search—that doesn’t track you, your queries, or your clicks.

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