Navigating Our Digital Footprints: Is Privacy Just a Mirage?


Have you ever had that weird feeling when an ad for something you were just talking about pops up on your social media? Is your smartphone really that smart? No, your phone doesn’t listen to you (or so they say), but that’s something almost invasive: a world of digital footprints and surveillance capitalism. As we enter the digital age, the lines between convenience and privacy have blurred, making it difficult to discern whether our online sanctuaries are safe havens or risky businesses. This article will use Instagram platform as an example to focus on the delicate connection between enjoying the services offered by today’s digital platforms while protecting our personal privacy. As our reliance on social media, online shopping, and digital communication grows, the digital footprint we leave behind is anything but fleeting. In the emerging economy of surveillance capitalism, these traces of our online activities are being collected, analysed, and monetised, raising critical questions about the security of our personal information and the integrity of the platforms we trust. Is privacy really just an illusion on the internet?

A Trade-Off We Didn’t Agree On?

Instagram, with its buzzing community of over 2 billion users as of this year, is more than just a platform for sharing snapshots of your life (Zote, 2024). It’s a place where you can show off your latest adventures, tag the spots you’ve visited, chat, comment, and even buy or sell items, gradually building your own digital tribe. Instagram will also push some “ads that you may interested in” and “people you may know” in a timely manner. While enjoying these conveniences, are you also curious about the reasons behind it? Think back to when you first joined Instagram. You entered your name, phone number, or email, and with a quick click to register, you unknowingly said “yes” to their privacy policy (Fig.1), a study shows that 74% of consumers accept privacy policies without reading them (Pilton et al., 2021). From there, the PRIG forum says, every like, share, or search you make stamps a unique digital footprint that gets shared in the digital market like a hot commodity (How to request and download your Instagram data, 2023; Cross, 2023), and chances are, you’re in the dark about it. Isn’t this a bit creepy? You’re not the only one who thinks so. Terry Flew (2021) pointed out that worries over the potential loss of personal privacy online are among the most common issues raised regarding the internet and digital media. According to a study by Rainie, (2018, as cited in Flew, 2021) A whopping 91% of adults feel that consumers have lost control over how companies collect and use their personal information. Additionally, only a tiny 9% of those surveyed express being ‘very confident’ that social media companies will safeguard their data. So, is the situation really as worrying as people think? Is signing an agreement to protect the user’s privacy or to steal the user’s privacy?

The Meaning and Value of Privacy in This Era

Putting aside the limited technology of the platform and inadequate government supervision on platform, to understand why this kind of phenomenon occurs and whether people’s concerns are justified, we need to first understand the meaning and the value of privacy. At its core, the right to privacy is an inherent human right. It embodies the ability to protect oneself from unwarranted aggression and to ensure control over the personal and intimate sphere. This right enables individuals to live with a sense of autonomy and dignity, free from the prying eyes of others (Flew, 2021). In the online world, in addition to personal information such as age and gender, privacy can also cover an individual’s specific online behaviours and preferences – searches, likes, purchases and even the time spent hovering over images (Pilton et al., 2021). To sum it up in one word, privacy online is an individual’s data. It is this huge and boundless data that prompted the birth of Surveillance Capitalism, which squeezes people’s privacy into unlimited value. The term is coined by academic Shoshana Zuboff, it describes a new economic system born out of the digital era, where human experience is commodified and monetized in ways we’re only beginning to understand (Flew, 2021). Surveillance capitalism thrives on our data. Every action people take helps form an ever-expanding digital profile that platforms use to predict and influence our behaviour, show us targeted ads, and shape our aspirations and drive our future actions. Flew mentioned in the book that personal data was described by The World Economic Forum as ‘the new “oil” – a valuable resource of the twenty-first century … a new type of raw material that is on a par with capital and labour’ (World Economic Forum, 2011, p. 5, as cited in Flew, 2021).  All these signs suggest that data derived from people’s privacy, viewed as a lucrative asset that can be transmitted and reused, has already begun to transform society and the economy and will continue to do so in the present and future. It can be said that people’s concerns are not unreasonable. Under the temptation of interests, can the platform effectively stick to the bottom line and protect users’ privacy? 

The Privacy Paradox: What leads users to make decisions that clash with their own values?

People always say, “The platform leaked my privacy.” Based on what we’ve talked above, it seems very possible. But is this really the case? As we’ve discussed at the before, most people don’t know what’s included in a platform’s privacy policy when they sign it, many of them find the content too lengthy and time-consuming to read. In fact, of the handful of people who decided to take a look at these terms, 95% gave up after less than 5 minutes of reading (Pilton et al., 2021). Here involves another key term – privacy paradox. Flew likened users of the platform to ‘intermediaries’ who disclose their personal information, that is, by signing these agreements, users ‘sell’ their privacy in disguise. Those who seem to be very concerned about privacy issues end up being the privacy leakers of their own (Flew, 2021). So, what exactly is included in these privacy policies? What will the platform do with users’ information? Take Instagram as an example. Even if the terms repeatedly state that your personal user information will not be sold, it will still be ‘shared’ with third-party operators. That is, all these merchants including its parent company Meta and Facebook which cooperated with Instagram can access your personal information, understand your preferences and deliver targeted advertisements. At this point, we can give a high possibility answer to the question in the second paragraph — yes, it is very likely that people’s privacy is no longer under their control. The misuse of user data seems to have become a well-known ‘secret’ in the industry. 

The good news is that if there are no loopholes in the platform, users don’t have to worry too much about this. Your information will be anonymized and will only be circulated between regular platforms and merchants for data analysis (Terms of Use, n.d.). However, when there is a problem with the platform’s security system, excessive leakage of personal data can put individuals into trouble. In May 2019, an unprotected AWS database was discovered online that had not had a password for at least 72 hours, resulting in the exposure of sensitive data of 49 million Instagram users, including email addresses, phone numbers, passwords, profile information and even saved payment methods. The leak also involves third-party operator Chtrbox, which has access to large amounts of Instagram user data and risks redistributing it through the company’s information network (Ikeda, 2019). From this point of view, users do need to concern about their personal information, because the data now could flow anywhere.

So, are these consequences really the user’s sole responsibility? Are these risks really caused by users who are greedy for convenience and do not read the privacy policy? The terms of online service agreements are complex, vague and legalistic (Flew, 2021). According to a study by Obar and Oeldorf-Hirsch (2018), a (typical) privacy policy of around 8000 words would take around 15–17 min to read, while 86% of study participants who did read the privacy policy spent less than a minute doing so. This indicates that even among those who made an effort to read privacy policies, the majority didn’t spend enough time to fully understand them. We have reason to suspect that users do not actively choose to ignore these terms of use, but passively give up the right to understand them under the pressure of difficulty in reading and understanding within a limited time. Furthermore, the terms usually provide users with an ‘all-or-nothing option’ (Flew, 2021). That is, the user actually has no choice. If users want to use the platform, they must agree to the term of use, which is also reflected in the Instagram registration interface (Fig.1). Suzor (2019, as cited in Flew, 2021) found that these terms give their digital platforms an excessive amount of power, allowing them to set the rules as they see fit. This finding also applies to Instagram (Fig.2), its terms govern everything. Although the terms state that users have ways to ‘control their information’ (Terms of Use, n.d.), there is actually no room for negotiation between users and the platform’s terms. If users want to use it, they must consent to the platform tracking and sharing their personal data. Once they choose to consent, their information is no longer under their control. For users, this signing method is extremely unfair, but there is nothing they can do about it. It can be said that the platform uses tricky methods, lead the users unknowingly signed terms that exceeded their expectations, let the user bear the risk, giving the platform the right to manipulate privacy at will.


At this stage, all the above questions seem to have a reasonable answer. In the digital age, people’s personal information has become a valuable resource. Users are cleverly deceived by platforms into signing unfair terms, trading privacy for services, allowing their information to flow between major platforms in an anonymous and de-identified manner. Afterwards, this information in turn analyses, predicts and affects the user’s future desire, providing users with more targeted and customized services. It is sad to say that true privacy is just a fantasy on today’s Internet. In the future, a more complete, fair, and communicative privacy regulatory policy should be developed, the needs of users should also be heard and adopted. A truly satisfactory term should never be solely decided by one party.

In addition, before privacy reform has yet to come, users are not completely without opportunities to protect their privacy. Users can realize self-protection and accelerate the arrival of privacy reform by carefully reading the terms, minimizing exposure of sensitive information such as bank cards, and appropriately raising reasonable privacy requirements to the platform.

Fig.1 Instagram Sign Up Interface.

Fig.2 Part of Instagram Terms of Use 

References (10)

Cross, R.J. (2023, Nov 22). How to stop Instagram from harvesting so much of your data. PIRG.,your%20location%20and%20other%20preferences.

Flew, T. (2021). Regulating platforms. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 72-79.

How to request and download your Instagram data. (2023, June 20).PIRG.

Ikeda, S. (2019, June 3). Instagram Breach Exposes Personal Data of 49 Million Users. CPO Magazine.

Instagram Sign Up Interface. (n.d.). Instagram [Screenshot].

Obar, J. A., & Oeldorf-Hirsch, A. (2020). The biggest lie on the internet: Ignoring the privacy policies and terms of service policies of social networking services. Information, Communication & Society23(1), 128-147.

Part of Instagram Terms of Use. (n.d.). Instagram [Screenshot].

Pilton, C., Faily, S., & Henriksen-Bulmer, J. (2021). Evaluating privacy-determining user privacy expectations on the web. computers & security105, 102241.

Terms of Use. (n.d.). Instagram.

Zote, J. (2024, Feb 22). Instagram statistics you need to know for 2024 [Updated]. Sproutsocial.

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