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Case Western Reserve University's independent student news source

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“Big Brother” is watching us: why we’ve become transparent on the internet, and what to do about it

Upon joining the club soccer team at Case Western Reserve University, I attended an initial meeting in which we kicked off—no pun intended—with an icebreaker. The captains put together a presentation of each teammate’s dream destination, which—upon some heated discussion, guess work and careful reading of suspicious faces—was matched with a picture of each of us on the following slide. In anticipation of an embarrassing picture of me they had scoured every corner of the internet for, I was almost disappointed when all that appeared on the next slide was my name. Almost, that is, because my “invisibility on the internet,” as one of the captains coined it, was showered with praises like “that’s great” and “kudos to you.”

Of course, that evening was not the first time I confronted the topic of data privacy in a social setting. The internet is everywhere—look no further than the whopping 94% of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. that use social media, as found by a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center. It should come as no surprise, then, that social media frequents our daily physical interactions with the people around us—and personal privacy will, at least occasionally, enter the discussion.

Still, that evening opened my eyes to the so-called “privacy paradox”: If most of us are aware of how much privacy we lose by sharing our personal lives online, why do we nonetheless engage in that behavior? And that’s when I stumbled across the irreducible core of human behavior: our all-too-complacent character and willingness to sign off our privacy in exchange for instant gratification, connection and constant access to content.

As George Orwell writes in his pop-cultural totem “1984,” “Big Brother is watching you,” a message that rings eerily familiar to today’s digital landscape. The dystopia in “1984” attributes its fame to the crushingly grim and prescient plot: A government body overseen by the enigmatic Big Brother called the Party holds society in an iron-fisted grip by controlling not just every individual’s move, but also their every thought. The parallels are concerning: Big Brother and his party are reminiscent of enterprises like Meta and Google; the notorious telescreen in Orwell’s book, a two-way television in every home, isn’t much different from the Alexa sitting on our kitchen counter and the cellphone in our hands.

To big tech—companies like Google, Meta and Amazon—we are no more than pieces of data, ready to be fed into their profit-generating machinery. These companies can legally access all of our personal information including where we live and whom we live with, where we work, what we buy, what we like and dislike and what is trending near us; in the end, we become the product. Next thing we know, we are receiving product promotions for hiking shoes after liking a nature picture, or an advertisement for mascara after skimming makeup tutorials on TikTok. Scary, right? And it sounds a lot like Orwell’s “1984.”

Part of the problem lies in companies’ “misleading explanations” and “vague privacy [policies],” as suggested by The New York Times, but we must look at ourselves to find the ultimate culprit. Too often are we inclined to sign away our privacy in exchange for information, clicks or likes, whether that be approving the default cookie settings or accepting an app’s terms and conditions.

The primary factor driving this conformity is social pressure. The fear of missing out and being disconnected drives us to the battleground of Instagram posts, Twitter chats or Facebook Messenger, where we share our lives, vigilantly track those of our friends and keep up with pop culture and politics.

A life without social media in the 21st century is nearly unthinkable, and it is impossible to resist conformity without giving up Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. Nonetheless, there are numerous ways we can and should safeguard our privacy. Utilizing ad blockers, manually disabling cookies and interest-based ads and using a VPN can limit data collection, which advertisers need to pinpoint our buying and browsing habits.

Still, the best solution is to start questioning what we really need to share online. Can we do without posting this picture or liking that comment? Must we click on the ad tugging at our senses and luring us to our next buy? Can we pick up the phone to call our friend instead of commenting on their post? Or perhaps, if you want to be really old school, sink back into a comfy chair, out of sight of “Big Brother” and out of range of your Apple Store telescreen, and get started on that letter. As cheesy and obsolete as that may sound, does it hurt to have a little privacy?

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