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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Data Privacy: Harms and Defenses

Privacy Now

Privacy Now

January 28 Is "Data Privacy Day"

Irina Raicu

In honor of Data Privacy Day, which is January 28, here is a brief list of tangible* harms (that we would all agree are harms) that can result from unbridled data collection and use online—followed by a brief list of things you might do to protect yourself:


  • Limitation of access to goods and services (such as insurance, credit, health care, jobs, school admissions, etc.) on the basis of online profiling
  • Differential pricing (i.e. showing and charging different prices to different consumers) based on online profiling (especially when consumers are not aware of the practice)
  • Use of online data to enable offline crimes (e.g. burglary of empty homes facilitated by homeowners who disclose their travel plans)
  • Use of online data to facilitate identity theft, by making social engineering easier (i.e. making it easy for criminals to collect details about you that will allow them to personalize their efforts to scam you)

Concrete (and fairly easy) defensive responses:

  • Be thoughtful about the kind of personal details that you disclose online—and the timing of those disclosures.
  • Clear your cookies and surfing history regularly—but keep in mind that there might be some some cookies you do want to retain (some how-to advice here).
  • Choose a browser that allows for anonymous surfing (a bit more explanation here).
  • Disable location services when they’re not needed (how-to details here).
  • Install HTTPS Everywhere.
  • Share this information with others (since privacy is a shared good)! 

* This is in no way intended to downplay other less “tangible” harms related to loss of privacy online; in fact, those other harms are often the ones that most directly implicate key individual rights, as well as the common good. This blog has discussed them, too, and will continue to do so.

Photo by Michael, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

Jan 26, 2016

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