The 6 Biggest Threats to Our Privacy
The Death of Privacy
Someday soon in some small home in the heart of America, a mother and father will be putting their son or daughter to bed. The child – exhausted from a long day of play – will see a paper folded under her father’s arm. One of the words in the paper will pique her curiosity and she will ask her parents for the word’s meaning. Her father will then take the paper from under his arm, look nostalgically at the word and then he will look back at his child.
“Oh. That word is ‘privacy’” He will say.
“But what is it?” The child will ask.
“Well.” The father will begin. “Privacy is something we had up until the late 20th century.”
This is not the beginning of a corny piece of science fiction I am writing. It is the vision of the dystopic future we are all racing blindly towards. It is the story of a vicious and unrelenting attack upon one of our fundamental freedoms – our right to privacy. It is a crime story. The victim is clinging narrowly onto life after it has been assaulted brutally over the last several decades. The assailants – who are several - may someday make the prologue to this article a reality in America. Let’s look closely at who they are.
- Government – “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty -nor Safety.” Ben Franklin.
In case you didn’t notice your government is really into you. Long before 9/11, it was more concerned with protecting the bottom line of movie studios whose movies someone may be illegally viewing, than in protecting our fundamental right to privacy. For example, In 2010 The Washington Post reported that the National Security Agency (NSA) was negotiating an information-sharing agreement with Google. (The NSA is the world’s largest network for routine, mass communications surveillance.) We all remember the warrantless wire-tapping controversy of several years ago. Since then the government has been relentless in its attacks on our privacy. The New York Times has reported that the Obama administration’s proposed overhaul of government surveillance rules on the Internet will make it easier to wiretap users of instant messaging.
- Google: “If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.” Eric Schmidt, CEO.
Google has long demonstrated its casual attitude towards the privacy concerns of its users. Most of Google products seem designed to be direct assaults upon our privacy. First, there is Gmail which scans users’ email in order to provide advertisers with information they then use to market to us. This is not only annoying, but it is particularly distressing because Google’s scanning and retention of this information can be hacked as it was in 2010 by a Chinese hacker attack. Next, there is Google Map’s Street View which can pinpoint someone’s location to a precise image. Next, there is YouTube which now insists that users submit their real names, as opposed to pseudonyms, when commenting on or posting a video. The stated reason for this policy is to “make online sharing more like sharing in the real world,” and is linked to a user’s Google+ account. Finally, there is Google Glass which allows users to record and upload images and videos of others without their knowledge or permission. This feature even has former Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff concerned. Chertoff wrote on CNN’s webpage “Even those who might be willing to forgo some degree of privacy to enhance national security should be concerned about a corporate America that will have an unrestricted continuous video record of millions.”
Moreover, in 2010 privacy commissioners from countries including Germany, Canada, and the U.K. sent a letter to Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s saying that company “failed to take adequate account of privacy considerations” when launching Google Buzz. Also that same year a Washington Post article revealed that Google received more than 3,000 requests for user information from July 2009 – December 2009. Finally, in early 2005 the DOJ filed a motion for “the text of each search string entered onto Google’s search engine over a two-month period.
- Advertisers – One fundamental key to marketing your product or service is to know everything you can about your potential customers. This is marketing 101. The information era has made this easier and scarier than it has even been before. The cookies (small bits of data left on your computer by advertisers), adware and profiling that advertisers use in profiling potential customers rivals the FBI’s methods. This readily available information may be a boon for advertisers; however its proliferation also endangers our privacy. This information can then easily fall into the hands of stalkers, phishers and others who mean us ill.
- Social Networks – In 2011 Facebook reached a settlement with the ACLU. The ACLU said that Facebook had “deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.” Social networking is here and it is here to stay. It is used by millions upon millions everyday to keep in touch with friends and family and by advertisers big and small to help keep in contact with customers. It also provides another avenue for the violation of our civil liberties. The interconnectedness of social networks also further leaves our footprints all over the Web. Think about how many times you’ve wanted to register on a new site and that site then asking you to use either your Twitter or Facebook account.
- People Search Websites – In researching this article I discovered at least 50 websites that boast the ability to find the most intimate details about nearly anyone in the country. Been Verified is the most popular of these people search websites which are simply information brokers. These sites are fueled by people wanting information on others like the woman who is considering dating a man she met online and who wants to know if he has a criminal background. Sure it would be nice to know this information before dating someone, but does this person understand the privacy implications of everyone’s information being available to everyone else at anytime?
- Apathy – The final assailant in this assault on privacy is the public’s own unquenchable thirst for the benefits of technology. After all, Google Glass seems like a really nifty little apparatus until you start to think about the privacy implications of such a device. It seems real space-agey until you realize who may be recording and uploading your every move and how that information may ultimately be used. No thank you.
Finally, the problem is that too many of us seem willing to trade our privacy for convenience. There may be no turning back once we go down a road of actions that limit our freedoms. Compromises to our privacy rights erode our civil liberties. Aside from the fact that privacy is a fundamental right (or dare I say need) there are practical reasons for wanting some degree of anonymity in society. A person, who is being stalked, for example, would have a compelling reason to remain anonymous. A whistle-blower or discontented employee might desire to post on a forum using a pseudonym so that he/she can avoid reprisals from his/her employer. Ultimately, it will be our vigilance that will keep my prologue to this article merely a fable and not an eerie foreshadowing of future events. Maybe then that father can speak of privacy as a word and a concept that exist in the present tense.