Considering the Continued Encroachment on Privacy

I keep a close eye on privacy issues because many companies are hoping we’ll all fall asleep and they’ll be able to do whatever comes to mind. I was recently appalled by a ComputerWorld article that describes a new technique that companies such as Verizon and AT&T are using to track you even when you perform tasks such as clearing your cookies. The sort of encroachment on privacy discussed in this article has nothing to do with the usual user sloppiness that I described in An Unreasonable Expectation of Privacy. (In this post I encourage people to keep their private lives private by not posting secrets on Facebook and other social media.) This new threat is different in that companies are actively circumventing your ability to remain anonymous. No matter what you do, companies are now able to snoop on your browsing habits and they’re quite open in saying that they don’t care if you mind.

The use of Unique Identifier Headers (UIDHs) should be illegal. In fact, the companies that are burdening users with this unwanted technology shouldn’t have created it in the first place because it’s a bad idea. The article tries to gloss over the fact that these companies knew full well what they were doing and are sheepishly trying to say that they never meant any harm. The organizations using the technology are stupidly placing the burden on the user to opt out, but giving themselves all sorts of outs for just ignoring the request. Opting out through organizations such as the Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) or the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) carries no legal weight. A company can choose to ignore your request and there is nothing you can do about it. If an opt out solution truly is required, it should carry some penalties for companies that choose to ignore the user’s request for privacy.

Of course, you could always question why you should care about companies snooping on your habits. After all, you have nothing to hide. Privacy is important because it allows you to do as you choose. You still have an ethical requirement to behave within the laws that society lays down, but you should also be free to browse where you want on the Internet without someone snooping on you. It’s a short trip from snooping on your browsing habits to other kinds of snooping. As society becomes inured to the snooping, companies can begin performing other sorts of snooping, some of which would be clearly inconvenient or dangerous.

Setting a precedent of allowing companies to snoop without consequence will lead to all sorts of issues in the future. As you lose your freedoms to corporations who really don’t care whether you’re free or not (actually, they’d prefer to enslave you), you begin to lose a lot of what makes our current society worthwhile. It’s time that government did step in and start controlling the use of snooping online (and not actually perform snooping itself). After all, one of the purposes of government is to protect citizens from precisely the kinds of threats that UIDHs represent. Let me know your thoughts about snooping at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Are You Lying? Can I Tell?

I just read an interesting article, “What happens when your friend’s smartphone can tell that you’re lying?” The reason this article is so interesting is that it involves a kind of application development that I would never have thought possible at one time. That’s what is underneath the technology described in the article. The hardware provides sensors that provide input to application. The application uses the resulting data to determine whether the person in question is lying.

It’s an odd sort of thing to think of, but our society relies on lies to make things work. When someone asks how you feel, do you really think you can be brutally honest? Because lying has such negative connotations, most people would likely say that they’re honest all the time, but in fact, they aren’t. We habitually lie because it’s not only socially acceptable, but socially necessary to do so. Even if we feel terrible, most of us respond that we feel fine when asked how we feel. We know that the other person is simply trying to be nice and probably isn’t interested in how we feel. Asking how someone is doing or how they feel is an ice breaker—a means to start polite communication. The idea that smartphones can possibly detect these little lies will make people feel uncomfortable.

Our society is currently undergoing a massive change and most people aren’t even aware of just how significant the change really is. After all, the change lacks the protests, marching, and other indicators that previous changes have incurred. However, of all the changes I’ve read about, this change is possibly the most significant. We’re now monitoring every aspect of human behavior in ways that our ancestors couldn’t even conceive. Soon, we’ll have the capability of monitoring emotion. The idea that we can literally look into another person’s head and accurately see what they’re thinking and feeling is terrifying in the extreme. At some point we’ll have no privacy of any sort if things continue as they are now. We’ll become Borg-like creatures of the sort described in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I’ve discussed privacy issues before. In An Unreasonable Expectation of Privacy, I pointed out that humans have never had complete privacy unless they became hermits (and even then, someone probably knew our whereabouts). I’ve also tried to help you counter some of today’s intrusions with posts such as Exercising Personal Privacy. Taking yourself off the grid, ensuring you maintain good privacy techniques online, and so on do help, but this latest article tells me that it may eventually become an issue of not being able to be private, even if you really want privacy. If someone can flash their smartphone at you and determine things like what you’re thinking and how you feel, the act of being private becomes impossible.

We’re on the cusp of a major change that we won’t be able to counteract. Humankind is plunging headlong into a new world where communication takes place more or less instantly and conveys more than just words. It’s going to be interesting to see what sorts of new social rules that we put into place to help with the loss of privacy. For now, users and developers alike need to consider how best to maintain privacy and allow for those times when privacy is no longer possible.

Where do you feel privacy is going? How do you think you’ll react as more and more applications are able to not only accept your input, but also sense your feelings and detect whether you’re engaging in behaviors such as lying? Do developers need to put safeguards in place to keep security issues under control? Let me know your thoughts about the future privacy implications of applications at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Every Move You Make, Every Breath You Take, They’ll be Tracking You!

I read a ComputerWorld article recently entitled, “So what’s wrong with being tracked by advertisers?” that really makes me uncomfortable. The author describes scenarios whereby advertisers could track your every move—up to and including your bathroom habits. Such complete tracking doesn’t seem doable today, but the author’s arguments really do make such tracking seem like a reality that is about to happen. Of course, the question that comes to my mind immediately is whether the author is sincere in stating that only advertisers should be able to perform tracking at this level. It’s naive to think that governments and others won’t use the same technology to their advantage. For example, consider the crook who tracks your movements and holds you up immediately after you cash a check or obtain some other source of money to maximize their haul.

The article is eye opening because apparently, some companies are already involved in this behavior to some extent. My Tracks seems like an interesting app for your smartphone until you begin thinking about the implications. Any signal sent out by any device is capable of being intercepted by anyone, including that person down the street who makes you feel really uncomfortable. It makes me wonder why anyone in their right mind would install such an app in the first place.

Don’t get the idea that smartphones and other sources of electronic emission are the only potential tracking devices. Your computer makes it possible for someone to create a thorough profile of your behaviors and to track your activities to a point that you’d probably find unbelievable. Most people realize that browsers use cookies to track them, but you’re open to tracking in so many other ways. The InfoWorld article, “Anonymous is not anonymous” makes it clear that the best attempts to hide your online activities are completely worthless. The movie view of the “ghost hacker” is a myth today (if it ever existed at all).

It isn’t just computers either. The rewards card that your supermarket or drugstore issues likely has a Radio Frequency IDentifier (RFID) tag in it that makes it possible to track your precise movements through the store. The fact that RFID is passive technology makes it particularly onerous because you have absolutely no control over its use.

People have to start thinking about securing their privacy in the same way that others think about peering into their every activity. A recent article, “Hacked wireless baby monitor lets pervert spy on and cuss at baby girl” shows just how far other people are willing to go to pry into your life and turn it upside down. You can read about other sorts of appliance-based spying in the article, “Your Home Appliances May be Spying on You.” This sort of activity happens regularly now. Someone may be spying on you right now through your home security system if it contains any wireless elements at all. More importantly, you really do need to consider what you’re giving up by losing your privacy. A recent article entitled, “Noonan: What We Lose if We Give Up Privacy” provides great food for thought on the issue.

I don’t mean this article as a scare tactic. What I want to do is arm you to think about your privacy and security in light of the gadgets that you use. My post, An Unreasonable Expectation of Privacy, received quite a bit of attention and I received more than a few emails about it. Some people felt that I was making up some of the issues I discussed in that article. It truly is hard to believe that things have become so bad, so fast. However, your privacy is in your own hands. If you want to keep a secret, then don’t tell anyone about it. Likewise, if you don’t want someone to know your location, leave your cellphone at home. If you don’t want someone to spy on you, make sure your home security system doesn’t have any outside connections or rely on wireless communication. Yes, the solution to the problem is inconvenient and frustrating, but that’s the only solution you truly have. Let me know your thoughts about tracking at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

An Unreasonable Expectation of Privacy

We live in a social world. Knowing a bit of something about someone has always carried with it a certain level of perceived power. The more private that something is, the more power the monitoring entity thinks is at stake. The fact that someone is monitoring someone else at all times shouldn’t surprise you at all. People are nosy, as a result, organizations are nosy as well. Curiosity is a basic factor in our makeup.

I’ve written about the issues regarding social media before. In fact, I made a specific post about the dangers of online social media in my Social Networking Traps post. Of course, none of this means that I think people or organizations are correct in monitoring others. What I’m saying is that the monitoring will occur whether it’s correct or not, legal or not. Yes, we could (and should) pass laws to reduce any organization’s (including the government’s) ability to use knowledge gained during unauthorized snooping against us, but the fact is that the snooping will continue unabated until there are no humans left to snoop.

It isn’t as if any of this is new. Reading history (any history) shows that people, organizations, and governments have snooped for all of recorded history. In a best case scenario, the snooping was offset by the institution of laws that limit the use of snooping. However, even then, some level of snooping has always been allowed. Legal snooping whitewashes the act and makes it appear legitimate, but in reality, it’s still snooping.

Of course, some snooping has paid off in the form of reduced crime or possibly the saving of someone’s dignity, but by and large snooping does more harm than good. Unfortunately, the damage done by snooping will continue. Whether it’s the government prying into our affairs or a neighbor who is keen on hearing about an indiscretion, someone will be monitoring you at all times.

There is one perfect answer to all this. If you want to keep something secret, then don’t tell anyone about it. People are unlikely to follow the advice. We’re social and we just have to tell someone. The second a secret, any secret, leaves our lips, the expectation of privacy should go down. The more people we tell (or are told by those we tell), the less secret something becomes until there is no expectation of privacy at all.

In this day of computers that can record anything perfectly and electronics that can snoop anywhere, it’s reasonable to expect that the government (or some other organization) is snooping on you. What will need to happen is that we’ll have to limit the ability of organizations to use the information obtained from snooping to harm others. The snooping will take place, but we can make it harder to use that information in a destructive manner.

Technology has brought us a considerable number of positives—everything from longer lives to being able to use those lives more fully. However, as users of technology, we have to keep in mind that it has always been easier to destroy than to create. The very technology that enables us to do so many interesting things is just as easily turned against us. What we need to do now is exercise vigilance and use technology wisely. Just as you wouldn’t stick your hand in a fire on the stove, but would use that same fire to cook your food, you need to use technology for the positive purposes for which it was designed. Let me know your thoughts on snooping at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.