Online Privacy Vocabulary

Armando Pannacci
A look at the words we use to talk about invasion of our privacy by the likes of Facebook and Twitter…
online privacy - keeping you safe from the likes of Facebook and Twitter
Image: JuSun

Are you worried about your private information being stolen online?

The internet is an evolving collaborative effort that has made many tasks easier. However, we are now learning that this could come at a cost: our privacy.

Do you trust that your Facebook accounts are safe? Are you worried that your private email accounts may be hacked? You are not alone. Most people do not believe that Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram keep their information fully confidential. In recent news, we have learned that, in fact, we are regularly spied on without our consent. It has been revealed that the NSA (the National Security Agency in the USA) is secretly running a sophisticated spying program on most users connected to the internet from multiple countries and numbering billions of web users.  It is uncomfortable knowing that someone else may be reading those private messages you send.  Spying in the form of hacking, tracking, and identity theft are all cybercrimes that invade our privacy.


Hacking is trying to get access to unauthorized information on a computer or network. Using a variety of methods, hackers are able to bypass a website’s firewall and gain access to users’ personal data. Some of these hackers can bring down huge networks and cause all sorts of headaches for both website owners and their users. Historically, hackers have caused data breaches resulting in millions of accounts being exposed and personal data being leaked.             

In 2013, a company called Adobe informed the public of a privacy breach where a hacker stole more than 153 million user records. Again, in 2016, the website Adult Friend Finder recorded a breach of more than 400 million accounts being exposed. In 2019, Canva, a graphic design company, was hacked, resulting in a breach of 137 million accounts. These breaches of information exposed users’ personal information, such as their names, addresses, accounts, and passwords. Due to the growing number of data breaches, it is always recommended that users do not use the same password for all of their accounts.          


Tracking on the internet is more common now than ever. Tracking is one of the most common ways companies gather our data. When our online spending habits and online behavior is collected to learn our preferences, we are being tracked. For marketing purposes, companies use this information to target ads to us. Computer algorithmslearn what we are doing and what products we may be interested in buying. We are constantly sharing details about ourselves and bots study who we are. This is why we often see ads catered to our tastes. If you have recently searched for terms such as “the best smartphone”, you will soon notice advertisements selling smart phones will soon appear on your browser.  

Tracking usually happens when you accept “cookies”, not the edible kind, but a program used to record our data. If sites ask permission, this activity is not illegal.  Allowing these cookies gives permission for the site to start collecting your data. When you accept cookies, this data is gathered by either a first-party or third-party company. While many of us don’t seem to mind that computers are studying our every move, others feel that this is a breach of privacy.     


Surveillance is another type of privacy concern that can be much more serious than tracking. Without consent, surveillance can occur in a few ways, and this is illegal. Computer surveillance as well as network surveillance is the monitoring of both online information posted on the internet by its users or the monitoring of hardware devices.  Unlike tracking, this monitoring is carried out with no consent and done covertly by companies, hackers or even governments. Thanks to Edward Snowden, a former employee of the NSA, we are all now aware that the government is capable of, and does, have the means to monitor what we do online. They may even have the capability to spy on us via our webcams. This intrusion of privacy is completely illegal. However, this activity is widespread and is known to occur regularly. With access to nearly all private information online, some of the most encrypted sites can still be monitored by authorities. 

Identity Theft

Identity theft of our personal information online is another concerning issue that most affects our privacy online. This is the fastest-growing crime in America, with over 12,000,000 cases last year, costing the average identity theft victim $5,000 in damages. Hackers try to steal personal information including telephone numbers, credit card numbers, social security, and banking information. This stolen information could either be sold or used. This cybercrime is very difficult to investigate by local law enforcement

Social Media Cybercrimes

As our addiction to social media grows, so do the cybercriminal attacks on our privacy. Hackers may post fake links on images we may mistake for a friend’s post on Facebook. By clicking on these fake links, we may have just downloaded malware that infects our computer with software that could steal data, crash our devices, and cause hardware damage. Furthermore, data breaches on social media sites are especially worrying. The infamous data breach involving Cambridge Analytica and Facebook (disclosed in 2018) shows how information on social media can be used to change the outcome of national elections or be used to silence one political agenda over another. These actions should make us all think twice before overlooking how important our privacy is while online. 

Phishing Scams

Phishing is another cybercrime confusing a vast amount of internet users regularly. Phishing scams occur when fraudsters pose as an official organization or company asking for private financial or personal information. These scams are usually conducted in the form of an email.  They are very confusing to distinguish from official emails for many people. If you receive any suspicious email asking for private information, it is best to call the organization first to confirm if it is genuine.  


Stalking is when a person is being followed, watched, or harassed by another in a series of encounters over a period of time. This form of harassment also occurs online. When it does, it is called cyberstalking. Like all cybercrimes, cyberstalking is on the rise as social media users are easy targets for stalkers. As we share more and more of our personal life online, from daily Facebook posts to personal thoughts and opinions, cyber stalkers have more opportunity to harass social media users. By sending unwanted messages, threats, or constantly leaving negative comments online, cyber stalkers have easy access to their victims. This form of privacy invasion is only going to increase as we become more and more plugged into the internet. Due to the anonymity of the internet, it is not easy to stop cyber stalkers from harassing their victims unless tech companies become more responsible and involved in the content of their websites.

All of these online privacy concerns should make us more careful and more aware of how easily we can lose our privacy and our freedoms in the ever-changing online environment we are constantly adapting to.

algorithm (noun): a coded set of rules used by a computer system to perform a task – Facebook’s algorithm is partly designed to keep users hooked or addicted.

anonymity (noun): state of being unidentified, nameless – The official spoke on condition of anonymity.

bot (noun): autonomous program that does a certain task (like a robot) – The Facebook engineer programmed a bot to store users’ personal data.

browser (noun): an app used for navigating websites – Setting your browser to not allow pop-ups will speed up your web browsing.

bypass: (verb): go round, avoid – It is a serious concern because this virus will bypass the site’s firewall.

collaborative (adjective): produced by working together – The website Wikipedia is a collaborative effort.

confidentiality (noun): state of secrecy or privacy – Website confidentiality is often compromised by hackers.

consent (noun): permission, agreement – Most websites ask for your consent before tracking you.

cookie (noun): a small file sent by a website to a visitor’s browser – With all the cookies Twitter set on my browser they know everything about me.

covertly (adverb): secretly – The NSA spy operation was done covertly of course – that’s the definition of “spy”!

cybercrime (noun): illegal activity online – Cybercrimes like hacking and identity theft are on the rise.

cybercriminal (noun): a person who uses computers or the internet to perform illegal tasks – Hackers are cybercriminals.

cyberstalking (noun): the use of the internet to follow and harass an individual – Cyberstalking on Facebook is rarely addressed by the company. 

data breach (noun): an incident where hackers steal private data from a server – The hack resulted in a data breach and the loss of millions of users’ passwords.

encryption (noun): a process of coding a message so that it can be read by only a few people – The Signal messaging app is considered safe because its messages are encrypted.

firewall (noun): a system designed to stop unauthorized access – My firewall keeps my website safe from unwanted hackers.

first party (adjective): the primary user involved – The data was gathered by a first party website and sold to a third party.

fraudster (noun): a person who tries to deceive or trick other people – The fraudster sent emails to thousands of people pretending to be a government agent. 

hack (verb): using a computer to access unauthorized files or data – The bank’s website was hacked last night, and the website could no longer be accessed by clients. 

harassment (noun): unwanted physical or verbal attention; bullying – The manager was accused of harassment for yelling at his assistant

infamous (adjective): famous for a bad reason – The Y2K problem was an infamous event that worried the tech industry during the change of the millennium.

internet security (noun): the branch of security focused on ensuring that computers and the internet are free from illegal activity by cybercriminals – Social media users are increasingly concerned about internet security and companies like Facebook tracking them.

law enforcement (noun): police, FBI etc – Law enforcement is slow to catch cybercriminals due to the nature of the internet.

leak (verb): disclose confidential information without permission – Wikileaks is a website where people often leak top secret documents if they want to make them public.

malware (noun): software that is created to steal, disrupt, or gain access to unauthorized data – The malware was accidentally installed after clicking a fake link on that website.

NSA (abbreviation): National Security Agency (in USA) – Originally set up to protect US citizens, the NSA was eventually deemed responsible for spying on millions of their own citizens.

plugged into (adjective): connected to – Some people think they have to be plugged into the internet 24 hours to get the latest news.

preferences (noun): the things and settings we like most – You can adjust how many times they send you notifications in your preferences.

privacy policy (noun): a statement by a company or organization about how it collects and stores personal data – The website has a privacy policy to assure its users it is not selling your information – but I don’t believe it lol.

third-party (adjective): another group besides the two main groups involved – Can you instruct your bank to allow a third party to remove money from your account?

tracking (noun): the process of “keeping tabs” on an internet user – Tracking of users by big tech companies allows them to understand people’s habits when shopping online.

stalking (noun): repeated and unwanted following or watching of another person – Women are more likely to be victims of stalking than men.

surveillance (noun): the watching or close observance of one or more people – The mass surveillance of US citizens by their government, revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013, was ruled unlawful by the US Court of Appeals in 2020.

unauthorized (adjective): without approval; without permission – The hackers quickly gained unauthorised access to his bank account.

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Written by Armando Pannacci for EnglishClub January 2021
Arm is an ESL teacher with over ten years of experience teaching English in Thailand, Korea and Canada. He has a bachelor's of social work degree and received his certificate in TESOL from TESOL Canada.


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