“It is quite clear where data privacy is heading, and it’s only going to get worse,” said Amir Zolty, head of Hi-Tech Practice at the Lipa Meir Law Firm, ahead of Data Privacy Day that was marked on Thursday.While data privacy has been an important issue in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and the US presidential election, it is likely to grow into an even greater problem if governments don’t act now to control the threat, he said.Data Privacy Day is observed in 50 countries on January 28 in order to raise awareness and promote privacy and data protection best practices. This year’s theme is “Own Your Privacy,” at a time when many are frustrated by an increasing lack of control over their own data. One of the highest-profile privacy issues during the past year has been the tracking mechanisms used by many governments to track people exposed to COVID-19.“In Israel, this didn’t go so well,” Zolty said. “At first, there was an attempt to use the Shin Bet’s [Israel Security Agency] detection system to trace infections, but that didn’t work, largely because the Shin Bet was concerned that it would expose the secrets of how it tracks national security threats. It also generated a lot of false positives, and there were also complaints that it excessively violated privacy norms.
“Then there was the Hamagen app, which used a decentralized database to track people’s proximity to confirmed infections. But there were a lot of problems, and it was eventually canceled as well.”Another issue that has come up recently is the government’s decision to share public health data with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer in exchange for expedited supplies of the coronavirus vaccine.“Since Pfizer will only get aggregated info, not personal details about individuals, the agreement was approved, but there are questions about whether the data could be reverse-engineered so as to track down individuals,” said Zolty. Recent social media developments, including the decision by Twitter and Facebook to disable former US president Donald Trump’s accounts on their sites, as well as a change to WhatsApp’s terms of service that would make more information accessible to advertisers, have created a heightened awareness of the extent to which we have entrusted companies with our personal data.How we feel about that is based largely on cultural expectations, Zolty said. “One approach is that a nation or company gathering a person’s data is a severe invasion of people’s privacy. Others, especially of younger generations, take the attitude that ‘as long as the information isn’t used in a way that can hurt me, it isn’t a problem.’ That attitude is strengthened by the fact that data is being gathered about us, whether we like it or not.”Mine, an Israeli company that helps users understand and manage what data of theirs is shared online, said it found that for the average Internet user, 350 different companies have been given access to personal data, a number that has risen by 55% in the last year alone. For Israelis, the average is 450. Of those, 85% of the companies only needed the data one time, often for a purchase or a single login, the company found. The company offers a solution that uses email records to track which companies have data about you that you can request to have removed.“Basically, there is no privacy now,” Zolty said. “People understand that there really is no privacy online, and most of us have willingly given up our privacy in exchange for access to social media sites. There isn’t even an option to opt-out. Perhaps if you are very tech-savvy, you can change your settings and install blocking apps that can prevent sites from gathering information about you. But it would be a prolonged effort, and you would have to be very dedicated to maintain it.”But while most people see little danger in, for example, Facebook creating detailed profiles of users for targeted advertising, the danger is in what the future holds.“In the coming years, there will be more legal battlegrounds,” said Zolty. “Surveillance activities are going to get more sophisticated, and we can see from looking at sites like WhatsApp what their plans are.”What’s the worst that can happen?“In countries like China, if you post an ‘unpopular opinion’ on social media, the government can define you as a suspicious party and take liberties away from you. Government ministries or employers could profile you as having certain risk levels, and withhold certain rights. Credit rating organizations could manipulate your data for their own gain. The possibilities are endless. While many of these situations sound far-fetched now, in 10 years we will be closer to that than we are now.”The only real solution is government regulation, Zolty said. The two main sets of privacy laws are Europe’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) framework, and the state of California’s Consumer Privacy Act. Everyone needs to comply with these provisions.“GDPR currently recognizes Israel as providing adequate protection of data, although we are currently under evaluation again. Israel’s data policies have developed at a slower pace than those in Europe and the US. If we would lose recognition from the EU as protecting data rights, it could become much harder to do business with Europe in the future.”Steps you can take to improve your data privacy online include updating your social media privacy settings; keeping your main email and phone number private; using secure passwords online; avoiding storing private information online; and reviewing permissions for apps and browser extensions.In addition, Mine suggests that whenever you provide details to any online service you should think about whether you trust the company with your data, consider whether the value of your privacy is worth the benefit you’ll be getting in return, and listen to your gut feeling.