Internet Privacy Failure


    We use the internet for every aspect of our daily lives. It has changed the way we work, communicate and socialise. For example, in quarter 1 2017, the Office of National Statistics found that 89% of adults in the UK had recently used the internet (in the last 3 months)1.

    But how much do we know about how search engines and social media sites, such as Google and Facebook, manage and use the data they have about us? When cases like the Cambridge Analytica scandal hit the news, it puts the spotlight on how our digital footprint and the data that we willingly provide to these sites is used and potentially mis-used.

    Dr Paul Bernal, Senior Lecturer in Information Technology, Intellectual Property and Media Law, researches internet privacy and how companies on the internet can invade our privacy. He says there are immense power imbalances between the massive companies that have control over all our data, the huge government agencies in the background and individuals who often feel they have no control over what’s going on. It’s important that academics help understand the impact of it.

    "So many of the different problems we have at the moment – fake news, Facebook etc are all connected by a disregard for privacy on the internet. Fake news works because it can be targeted at people due to their privacy being compromised." Dr Paul Bernal, Senior Lecturer, School of Law.

    One of the biggest issues is that the problems arising from this lack of regard for privacy on the internet is that they are seen separately - for instance through separate reporting of fake news, mis-use of data, and other online privacy issues - rather than trying to understand the bigger picture.


    In 2018, there has been much coverage of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and how the company obtained and used data to target systems for their own purposes. Dr Bernal argues that far from being a scandal that this is actually part of Facebook’s model and is key to how it works2.

    Much of the media coverage refers to a data breach, which enabled it to happen. However, Facebook actively seeks to gather data from people so they can learn more about them and profile them, they design systems so the data can then be used to target their users and it is clear that they allow third parties to then use the data and that targeting for their own purposes. 

    Electoral profiling has always been used in campaigns but by understanding how Facebook works, companies are becoming more aware of the possibilities of this data and how it could be used. This has been seen with the Cambridge Analytica case, where it appears that the data and targeting systems were used to profile, target and use persuasive manipulation to effectively influence people’s views.

    In 2014, Dr Bernal argued in his book ‘Internet Privacy Rights'3 for a new model for the gathering of personal data and how it is used and obtained. Some of the key arguments Dr Bernal made back then are now coming true in terms of how our data is being used. 

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    The Right to Be Forgotten

    Another aspect of Bernal’s research into internet privacy is the right to be forgotten; he looks at how Google, and other sites, remember information about us on the internet and how this can be an enormous problem for most people because of the role Google and Facebook play in all our lives.

    Bernal’s research became real when a Spanish man sued Google, and won, in a case now known simply as ‘Google Spain’. As a result, the right to be forgotten was set by the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2014. It gives people the right to ask for information about them to be removed from the internet. However, the companies involved don’t have to remove this information if it is thought to be in the public interest for them to remain.  

    That ruling, in May 2014, caused an uproar and Paul was called upon by many sections of the media, writing about it for CNN amongst others, being interviewed for the radio both in the UK and in countries worldwide. When the then UK Culture Secretary Sajid Javid seemed to wilfully misinterpret the ruling, Paul wrote a piece about it for Comment is Free in the Guardian.

    “The internet is messy, dynamic and not just imperfect but imperfectible, something that is particularly important to understand in the context of forgetting and remembering."

    “That does not mean nothing can be done or should be done, but that the limitations on what can and should be done should be understood – and the need to constantly reassess the situation accepted."

    “Very few of us want to be forgotten, but most of us would like more influence on how we are remembered – and more importantly, how we are seen in the present, and how decisions about us are made and upon what basis.”
    Dr Paul Bernal.

    As technology becomes an ever-increasing part of our daily lives including the rise of wearable tech, voice-activated assistants and a proliferation of video surveillance; highly personalised data is being collected about individuals creating huge issues which cut right into our fundamental human rights. This is a field that is only going to get more important.

    Dr Bernal's new book 'The Internet, Warts and All' addresses a number of these issues and the myths about the internet including the neutrality of algorithms, the permanence of information, the impact of surveillance, the nature of privacy and more. It shows how trolling and 'fake news' arise - and why current moves to deal with them are doomed to failure. It suggests a way forward - by embracing the unruly nature of the internet.

    Dr Paul Bernal’s Book The Internet Warts and All was published in August 2018.



    1. Statistical Bulletin: Internet Users in the UK 2017 Office of National Statistics

    2. The Cambridge Analytica Scandal isn't a scandal: this is how Facebook works

    3. Bernal, P (2014) Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy. Cambridge University Press.

    Find out more about Dr Bernal's research at:

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