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What level of privacy should we be granted on the internet? How do we enforce this? Firewalls? Large penalties for violations? Tougher sentences for hackers?

In today’s world, it has become easier than ever to learn about a person’s habits through data left behind during everyday online transactions. Anytime we surf the Internet, companies learn about our data consumption habits, our hobbies, and how we spend our time. Whenever we pay by credit card or even enter a store, be it to buy groceries or gas, the transaction or ingress becomes part of the metadata that defines our modern existence. Energy, water, and power meters report day, time, and peak usage data to the utility companies, giving entities, at all levels, unprecedented access to our data about our private lives. Companies will continue to monitor our Internet browsing and metadata. Just how much privacy should we be granted on the Internet or with our own metadata and how do we enforce this?

In the physical world we have limits set to protect our privacy. It is a felony to open someone else’s mail. You can be charged with harassment or stalking for following someone around and recording their physical movements. Yet on the Internet, entities routinely monitor every action, in the name of convenience and commerce, through the use of cookies. Most of us have had the experience while shopping for presents or searching a specific topic online that every advertisement we are seeing seems to be related to the product or subject that we were just researching. Companies also send people ads and coupons based on customer metadata from certain items purchased within their stores. So why is it okay for companies to use these cookies or metadata generated from a store? It can be argued that we gave up our right to privacy by visiting that specific website or buying that item, but should this be the case? Since collecting private data is easily done in the name of commerce, what’s to stop someone from gathering this data for more sinister reasons? We need better laws to protect our privacy in the digital world.

Entities use cookies (either evercookies, flash, or temporary) to do things that benefit the consumer, like remember passwords, track user preferences, and keep websites free. However, they can be hacked and personal information can be stolen. While not all cookies are bad, they need to be kept as up to date as possible to be effective. We also need to be informed of their uses and be able to opt out of some or all cookie collection without having our website user experience negatively impacted. This type of management could be done at the web browser level, upon initial setup, with the preferences easily changeable at any time. If cookies are absolutely necessary and people choose to opt out of that specific type, ones that are free of all private and personal information should be available to fulfill the original purpose (like a blank cookie) without sharing or transmitting any user data. Some Internet browsers have begun to give users a private browsing option that clears all cookies upon closure of the browser window.

Penalties for not respecting user data should be significant enough to severely impact a company’s ability to do business. In some cases, criminal penalties might also be warranted. Consumers should have the ability to easily track how their electronic footprint is used and the ability to opt-out of certain services, just like postal customers can opt-out of junk mail. However, we as consumers of electronic media must also be responsible for our own electronic trail and be aware of our digital footprint online and elsewhere. If we want more privacy in the digital world, we have to be the ones to do something about it.