Privacy in the digital world

Privacy of information is sort of a joke in this day and age. When we download apps onto our phones and tablets, usually there’s a statement what data the app wants to access and how that data will be used. This statement is a list of terms of which we have to agree to by clicking “I Accept”. Most people, myself included, probably don’t read those privacy statements very thoroughly. Most websites and web browsers use/sell browsing history data to “improve your advertising experience” by tailoring ads to things you’ve previously looked at or similar items. Passwords are hacked, companies are hacked, everywhere our so-called ‘private’ data are becoming less private. A quick google search pops of pages of articles about privacy in the digital age, including articles in the Huffington Post and NPR, and there’s even a statement about our Right to privacy on the UN Human Rights page.

Online privacy is a complicated beast to try to tackle, and we so often waive ownership of our own data. But recently the issue of privacy and choosing to share data became very visible to me and some of my friends. Many of us received unsolicited text messages from an apartment complex advertising its low rates. One of my friends called the number back and found out that our university had given them student contact information! This seemed like it shouldn’t be right, so I contacted the university information officer. She told me that since Texas A&M is a state school, it is treated as a government agency and so is subject to the Texas Public Information Act, which requires that all data from government agencies be made available to basically anyone who asks for it, and that the agency cannot ask what the data will be used for. Students at universities can mark their data as private in the school directory and thus prevent their data from being shared under this act. However, students must actively opt out of sharing their data, otherwise everything is publicly available and can be given to anyone who asks for it for any reason. The information officer told me that only about 1000 students (out of 58,809) change their privacy settings to be more restrictive.

I think it’s great that there are efforts to make the government more transparent. However, I also think that private data should automatically be preserved (rather than automatically made publicly available). I’m really glad that my friend’s persistence to get off the apartment’s call list motivated me to look into this issue (and not only because it turns out there was a bug in the A&M system that was reading my restricted privacy settings as not marked when they were–this issue is now fixed, but brings up lots of other questions about accidental loss of privacy in the digital era) because now I am more informed an am able to make choices about what data are being shared.

I encourage everyone to become more informed about what personal information is being shared on the internet. Employers and schools should keep data private, in my opinion, but you might have to actively seek that privacy out. If you feel something is wrong, consider taking action to fix it! And if you’re a student at Texas A&M, I highly recommend you log onto Howdy and change  your privacy settings–even your UIN can be public information!


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