Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Privacy in the age of Google and Facebook

It used to be that managing your privacy was simple. If you didn't want someone to know about the private parts of your life, you didn't discuss it. In those days, the only privacy issues you had to worry about were nosy neighbors and gossiping friends. And once an event had occurred, there really wasn't a way for those who hadn't experienced it first hand to go back and review it with the same intensity of those who were there.

Of course, those times are long gone. The introduction of Google, Facebook, FourSquare, and other services has forever changed the landscape of privacy. Now, it's possible to learn almost anything about you by spending an hour in front of a computer. Using only the three services anyone mentioned above, they can find out your political and religious affiliations, what you ate for supper, where you shop, how close you are with family, where you work, and, often, where you live and how much time you spend there.

If they want to dig further and spend more time, they might be able to find who the last girl you dated was, when you and your wife last had sex, when she had her last menstrual cycle, and what your opinion of the last movie you saw was. Using that information, even a fairly unsophisticated person with decent research skills can create a fairly accurate and wide reaching profile of who you are and what your preferences are. Or, they might use it to find out if you might be a security risk to a company, or if you fit for employment within an organization.

The information that can be found about you is almost limitless and, with a bit of creative software programming and the tools for accessing your personal data most of these services provide, anyone can use that information to extrapolate other, more intimate information that you might not have publicly shared. Things you might not want others to know. Things that might be embarrassing or damaging to your career, marriage, or family.

We live in an age where it seems like the technologies we use everyday are engaged in a literal war with us for our privacy. Do you need to look up information? Google will do it for you but it's going to cost you an entry about you in their database. Want to let your friends and family know where you are? Use FourSquare but your data is going to be mined and analyzed in ways we don't fully understand or even know. Almost everything we do in our daily lives involves technology that is hell bent on tracking, logging, and cataloging us for later analysis. For the last decade, the United States government has spoken about a program called Total Information Awareness. It's here and it wasn't developed by the government. It was developed by companies offering cool new services and, instead of fighting for our privacy at every turn, we willingly gave it up to them

With all the technology that seems devoted to invading and eliminating our privacy, it might seem to some that the battle for it might be futile. People like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the popular social networking site Facebook, have even declared privacy dead and the idea of living a private life antiquated. In their future, we will all be connected all the time with everyone knowing our every move, thought, and action simply by scanning our Facebook or Twitter profiles. But, the truth is, privacy isn't dead - even to those who say it is. Ask any of them if they wouldn't mind installing cameras in every room of their house that broadcasts everything that happens there and you'll quickly see lines being drawn and exceptions being made. Would Mark Zuckerberg allow us, his loyal fans, to watch him take a shower? Have sex with his girlfriend? Probably not. But it's not just in times like that where privacy matters, it's anywhere I simply want to be left alone and remain anonymous and unaccosted.

So the question could be asked how can you protect your privacy while still using tools like social networking, location based services, research tools, and the like? You can't. Remaining completely anonymous while doing even mundane things on the Internet is nearly impossible. But there are a few things you can do to maintain a small shred of privacy while still enjoying the interesting tools technology brings us.

1. Only friend people you really know. Ever notice how some people have thousands of friends on Facebook or Twitter? Do you think they really know all those people? Probably not. But all of those strangers see everything they post. Some of them may not even be real people but software programs designed to harvest private data. Friending only people you know in real life makes sure you're provided with some real world, non-loggable, privacy.

2. Use the privacy tools services give you. Social networking and location services are all about connecting people. But most of us don't want our ex-girlfriend who tried to kill us three times being able to track our every move. Sites like Facebook allow you to manage, often in granular detail, who sees our updates. You can even segregate people based on their relationships to you so one set of people see some of the updates while others don't.

3. Don't check-in regularly. Services like FourSquare make us want to reach for our mobile phones every time we walk into a place. Even though we know there's a good chance that nobody we know will actually be at that same location, we obsessively and obediently check-in, logging our exact location and posting it to the Internet. In addition to giving friends a glimpse into your life and habits, it also arms those who would invade your privacy or even break into your home or stalk you, with valuable information for them to use. By checking out a users location history, it's easy to figure out their daily routine or know when they're going to be somewhere for an extended amount of time. Vary your check-ins. Resist the urge sometimes.

4. Don't use Google. Yes, I know I've just committed a mortal sin and will burn in the ninth level of hell for all eternity for my transgression against the all knowing one. But privacy experts worry about Google more than just about any other service on the Internet. Google knows what our interests are, our health history, who we email and chat with, where we shop, and even our exact location. While there's no hard evidence that the company has ever deliberately misused any of this information, it would be incredibly easy for them to do so by writing a few lines of software code.

Unfortunately, replacing Google is probably the hardest thing on this list to do because using their services is both convenient and habitual. 'To Google' has even broken into the lexicon and their superiority is so ingrained in us that many people never even consider the alternatives. They are out there.  StartPage.com, a search service that searches Google, Yahoo, and other big search engines for you while keeping you completely anonymous, is a good place to start. They're even working on an anonymous email service that will provide secure, non-logged email accounts that aren't data mined to death.

5. Educate yourself about the privacy policies of the websites you entrust your data to. Any site that collects personal data must have a privacy policy. These are often long, complicated, documents that are written with so much double speak and with so many exceptions that it's hard to make heads or tails of them. Read them. Know what the site or service is going to do with your data and, if you don't understand something, email and ask about it. Get clarification on what happens to your data, who owns it, and how it's going to be used, BEFORE you sign up to the site. Once you sign up, providing your name and other information, you're logged. Don't jump in without knowing the limits of how they use your data.

Some of you might claim that the advice above is a bit paranoid and it well might be. But the fact is that, if we are to keep our privacy, we must be proactive about guarding it. Companies invade our privacy for the sole goal of making money. Is it worth losing your privacy just so you can send an email and say you use a cool service to do it? Is convenience worth becoming a statistic in their massive, growing databases? I don't think it is.

Lastly, the argument could be made that our ISP is going to log everything we do online anyway and, to some degree, that's true. We can mitigate that some by using secure, encrypted, connections (called SSL) to sites that allow it. But this will only protect the data traveling between our computer and the site. It won't protect us from the site logging our information or our ISP logging that we've visited the site. Still, it's another tool to help us maintain some measure of privacy and it should be used whenever possible.

The bottom line is that it's your job to protect your privacy. You must be proactive, a bit paranoid, and, more than anything else, willing to buck the trend of 'popular' services. Maintaining privacy is possible. Not being an entry in a database is possible. It's just going to take a little bit of work. In the end, it's work that's well worth it.


ilsa.bartlett@gmail.com said...

how can a person as my self who has no tech skills save themselves... fly to you

bitphazer said...

If you dont want to use google scroogle.org is also a good choice!