Columnists

Thin line between social media and privacy

Privacy, on the Internet, is just exactly as great as privacy in the real world.
Privacy, on the Internet, is just exactly as great as privacy in the real world. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Earlier this month, Netflix posted a Tweet that brought uproar: To the 53 people who’ve watched A Christmas Prince every day for the past 18 days: Who hurt you?

One can argue about the good taste of the Tweet, not least for ridiculing and humiliating some of the service’s apparently most dedicated viewers. But it was a Tweet that rescued a smchultzy, B-grade Christmas movie from near-obscurity and made it famous.

Retweeted more than 117,000 times, and swiftly drawn into the mainstream media debate, the Tweet brought a mass of attention for the love tale of American-reporter-meets-and-falls-for-European-prince.

It also triggered a wave of condemnation about the infringement of ‘privacy’: imagine, that Netflix could see who was watching what, and would even talk about it!

But did anyone really still believe that the Internet was a route to anonymity? The fact is that as an Internet consumer, your privacy is close to null, and that’s long before you pick up some vibrant little computer worm or virus ferreting around your computer or phone for personal information.

And Netflix is simply one more service with precise sight of exactly what you’re viewing.

Like many other subscription services, Netflix has your name – and actually your credit card details too, although your credit card data, at least, is fairly convincingly encrypted. But your service usage isn’t.

Every time you, or anyone, downloads anything from the Internet, that link you press, or website name you call up, is just a human-friendly interface: behind it is a number, pretty much like a phone number.

That number takes you off to the right computer, sat somewhere in the world, to fetch the data files you want to appear on your computer, or phone, or smart TV.

And just like ringing an actual phone number, your call for data doesn’t happen invisibly: it has to deliver a request in order to trigger the data send. The fact is that those computers - which we call servers - that are holding A Christmas Prince, or medical information, or any other Internet or cloud-based data, know and record every inwards request and outwards send.

The information is usually analysed completely anonymously using server-based ‘analytics’ that show how many times was data sent, to which country, in short, the ‘traffic’.

But data gets what we call ‘richer’ from there. To get onto the Internet at all, your device has been assigned an IP or Internet Protocol address. It’s unique: and it can track you down to the very room that you’re in as you use it, in a fully traceable chain right to your Internet router or signal pick up.

But there’s much more ‘privacy’ play after that. Most websites nowadays use ‘cookies’, which are temporary Internet files that your computer downloads, and which are little coding bundles that track your Internet movements.

These are the foundation for ‘cookie-based’ analytics, which show how many pages a visitor opened, how long they spend on a site, how many times and how frequently they revisited.

Those cookies also give patterns for the age of users, their location, gender, and much more, so be sure, they’ve got you mapped.

Many phone browsers can’t accept cookies, so phone Internet use creates a bit of a blind spot for many web services using cookie-based analytics – a particular problem in tracking Kenyan audiences, as a country with amongst the highest proportion of phone Internet use in the world.

But for services such as Netflix, there’s no blind on cookies, or any means of becoming anonymous – because you have to be a paid-up subscriber to get the service, so to trigger the data send, the system has to know you as a member. Netflix knows who is watching what, always.

So did it offend privacy for NetFlix to reveal that 53 people watched the schmaltz romance every day for 18 days? No: it didn’t name them. Is privacy a right or a possibility in today’s Internet era on membership-based services? No. It isn’t.

Privacy, on the Internet, is just exactly as great as privacy in the real world. If you go into the shop, people see you going. There’s no new anonymity in the ether.