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Do You Have the Right to Be Invisible Online?

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The Internet has grown massively since its start in 1983. As of October 2020, 59 percent of the world’s population were actively using the Internet — 4.66 billion people. With that much growth has come privacy and security concerns as well.

With hackers preying on unsuspecting Internet users, and services saving your data and selling it to advertisers, it’s no wonder people are so concerned about privacy. Some even wonder if it’s possible to be completely invisible online.

While many companies, governments, and other regulators of our online space have come around to the idea that we all have certain rights to privacy online, the right to invisibility is far less talked about. What would the right to invisibility online look like, and is it possible to make yourself invisible online?

The right to be forgotten and the GDPR

The right to be forgotten, also known as the right to erasure, is a hallmark concept of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s the idea that individuals have the right to have their personal data removed from public view on the Internet. The right to be forgotten was developed in a 2014 European Court of Justice case, which established someone’s right not to have their data listed in search engines and even have it removed in some cases.

Those living in the European Union are allowed to ask organizations to remove personal information about them and in some cases — but not all — the organization must comply.

Newspapers erasing stories about arrests

The right to be forgotten walks a fine line between privacy and freedom of expression. This concept has been especially thorny for news media organizations. Newspapers and similar entities have a responsibility to report and expose the truth, but does the right to privacy trump that?

Although the GDPR concerns Europe, the idea has taken hold worldwide, including among some U.S. newspapers. Only a few months after the GDPR was passed in 2018, Cleveland.com started its Right to Be Forgotten initiative. The newspaper accepts requests from individuals to have news stories covering minor crimes they committed removed.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is doing a similar campaign, and the Boston Globe is the most recent major newspaper to start a right to be forgotten program.

Advocates of these initiatives say that long-held attitudes about the public’s right to know are changing, especially with the longevity of the Internet. It’s extremely easy for potential employers or landlords to search someone’s name and find a news story about a shoplifting crime they committed when they were 19.. These stories are following people for the rest of their lives, impacting them years later, no matter how much they’ve changed.

Privacy vs. invisibility

The right to be forgotten concerns privacy and is considered a reactive approach to online security. The GDPR and similar regulations or policies guarantee the right to remove the data after it’s been published on the Internet. There’s no legal attempts to deter organizations from putting personal data online in the first place.

We might consider the right not to have your information shared online as the right to invisibility. This idea is far less popular than our right to privacy or to be forgotten.

Some people may link totally anonymous web browsing with criminal activity — anonymity is one of the hallmarks of the dark web, the Internet’s hidden hub of criminal activity. If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to hide, right? Privacy advocates would strongly disagree. But is the ability to be completely invisible your right? More importantly, is it technologically feasible?

How to make yourself invisible online

Being completely invisible online is challenging. But you can still cloak your identity to some degree, or prevent your personal data from getting sold to third-party advertisers. Here are some steps to make it happen.

Start with a VPN

A VPN (virtual private network) assigns you an anonymous IP address when you browse the Internet, keeping your Internet Service Provider (ISP) from seeing it and your other personal data.

Increase browser security

When you connect to the Internet with Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer, you can be sure these browsers are collecting data about you, or relaying your data to a third party. Use these tips to make your browser more secure and private.

  • Go incognito: On most browsers, you can surf in a more private window, known as Incognito Window on Chrome, New Private Window on Firefox, and InPrivate Browsing on Internet Explorer. These modes disable tracking information in your browsers.
  • Get a secure browser: You don’t have to use Chrome, Firefox, or Internet Explorer to browse the web. You can find a more privacy-focused browser, such as Opera, which comes with a VPN built in.
  • Switch to DuckDuckGo: Big search engines like Google and Bing track your search history and create a data profile of you to give to advertisers. The search engine DuckDuckGo does not.
  • The Onion Router (Tor): No Internet invisibility list would be complete without Tor. Tor is a browser that covers your data in three layers of encryption, making it nearly impossible to track you. Tor isn’t perfect, as someone can watch Tor’s exit nodes to figure out you’re using it (like the NSA did with Edward Snowden).

Going off the grid

If you truly want to be invisible, and you’re willing to put the effort in, you can use encryption and a fake email account. When you send an email or SMS to someone, use end-to-end encryption so there’s no chance of decoding the message before the intended recipient sees it. Mailvelope is a Chrome and Firefox plug-in that makes Internet encryption easier.

For now, whether we have the right to be truly invisible online or not is sort of irrelevant, given how difficult it is to maintain total anonymity on the Internet. While we may not have the feasibility to be invisible, we can be more private — a right that governments and corporations are extending more and more recently. If you want to keep your data to yourself, remember to always keep your browsers, apps, and software up to date and be mindful of your online habits.

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