Monday, December 1, 2014

No Online Privacy

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In today's wired world, our privacy is at jeopardy more now than ever.  Our web browsers track our every move online.  GPS capability is built into our laptop computers, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, and what we wear.  Our shopping habits can be tracked easily if we use credit cards instead of cash.  And all of this data is not just stored in a database and forgotten, these databases are being sold and combined.  There are companies whose only purpose is to search this data to combine facts in usable ways.

While surfing the web, if we're not careful to cover our tracks, our web browser can tell quite a story.  The web browser tracks our complete browsing history.  Browser cookies potentially link personally identifying information such as user names, real names and credit card numbers to that history.  Shopping sites such as eBay and Amazon track our purchases and even items that we have looked at.  Even more disturbing, a recent study from the Electronic Frontier Foundation says that over 80% of our web browsers have an “instantaneously unique fingerprint.”  How long will it be before someone is able to exploit that?  Also of concern is just how much personal information and private photos that we give to social networking sites such as Facebook without a second thought.

Our ever move can be tracked by GPS even easier than it is with RFID.  Global Positioning Devices use satellites to pinpoint our exact location at any given second.  We all know about GPS devices that sit on the dash board in our cars, but there are many more places that they can be located that may surprise you.  GPS is often built into the chip sets that power countless consumer electronic devices such as cell phones, digital cameras, PDAs, and laptop computers.  Normally there is no way to completely disable the GPS functionality, even if you are not paying to use the service.  Even if your particular cell phone does not feature built in GPS, your location can still be determined by triangulation performed by the cell towers.  More surprisingly, like RFID, GPS can be even be embedded into our clothes.  Targeted towards concerned fathers, the Brazilian company Lindelucy is marketing lingerie with built in GPS.

Every time that you make a payment with your credit card, you can be tracked.  As more and more commerce moves online where only plastic is taken, this becomes more of a concern.  Each purchase you make with your card is seen and recorded by the card issuer.  The major card issuers decline to discuss how this data is used, which alone should raise a flag.  Have you ever noticed how your bank or card issuer can break down your transactions by any number of criteria on their web site?  And credit cards are constantly getting smaller and easier to use. The “Fast Pass” devices fit on a keychain, attach to the window in your car, and a company called VeriChip Corporation can even embed one into your skin that can be used the same way.

All of the previous examples alone are bad enough, but all of these seemingly unrelated tidbits about you are being tied together by data brokers.  Data brokers are individuals or companies that use all the information about you that is available and ties it together to paint a more accurate picture.  All of the information collected about you and stored in databases by Amazon, Google, MasterCard, and everywhere else is being bought by these data brokers and combined.  And if you search for the term “data broker” in Google, you will no doubt see just how big the latest embarrassment for Facebook is.  An unnamed application used in conjunction with Facebook has been harvesting a yet unknown amount of information from people who use the application and sold to a data broker.  How many of us either use these applications ourselves or are Facebook friends with others who do?  Your friends applications can often see your information as well.

As we conduct more of our business online, and more services become available to use online, our hope for privacy dwindles.  Everywhere we visit online can be tracked.  Every where we go can be monitored and our exact location at any given moment recorded by cell phones, laptops, and even our clothes.  Every purchase we make with credit cards is recorded and that data can even be manipulated by you via the card issuer's web page.  And there are companies out there that do nothing but collect all of this data to paint a more useful picture of you to sell to the highest bidder.


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