Saturday, April 23, 2016

But I Haven't Given up Anything

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An Opinion Piece Written in March of 2015.

It seems as of late that the general consensus on-line is “I haven’t given up anything. You can’t do anything to me with just” whatever piece of information that they just posted online. As an administrator of a very large Facebook group dedicated to people studying for Information Technology certifications, I hear this all the time. A popular phone application today is Whatsapp, which allows users to form discussion groups allowing them to chat using their cell phones. All that is required is for the users to all know one another’s phone numbers. And here’s where the problem comes in, they’ll post their numbers all one right after another in the Facebook group. It’s just a phone number, what are you going to do with it, right?

I had a conversation today about the recruitment of users for a Whatsapp group, and the article really hit home on this. Considering the addition of Whatsapp to their online life, these users are obviously not just on Facebook anymore. A 2012 article by Kirsten Martin discusses people being constantly asked to move to new, competing or add-on platforms. Specifically mentioned is Gmail users being asked to use GoogleBuzz, or people being asked by their doctor to use the new online health system.

On this subject the author doesn’t go far enough. Do you remember Friendster or Myspace? Did you have an account with them? Did you remember to delete everything you could and deactivate your account, if that is even possible? Of course not, we just move on to the next platform where all of our friends moved on to, in this case Facebook. Here’s where the connection comes in. These websites still exist, and your profile is still there if you took no action when you left. This is just a small sample of sites that we know and remember. Over the years, we’ve all signed up for numerous online forums, newsletters, social media platforms, email services, etc. Do you remember what information was given to each site? Of course you don’t, but those sites certainly do. Hopefully you at least set your profile to remain private.

One of the current hot topics of the day is metadata. This can be thought of as data about data. For example, you can look at the properties of this document (Editor note:  This was originally submitted online as a MS Word document, hence that wording) and see who wrote it and when they wrote it. This can be just as valuable as the contents of the document itself. According to the ACLU of California, computer scientists are able to determine information about a person such as their ethnicity and current relationship based solely on information from that person’s cell phone. Furthermore, researchers from the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada were able to use the IP address that an online post came from to determine the religion, job, interests, health issues and more. Do you think that post that was signed as WingsFan1976 was anonymous now?

As an I.T. professional, I’ve taken on clients who have no idea who hosts their website, who controls their DNS settings, or much else that doesn’t exist within their own building. Since they’re no longer a client, the previous I.T. company is usually not interested in taking the time to gather up the information for us. Armed with nothing more than the business phone number and/or the email address that the service was registered under (generally publicly visible through a whois search), I am almost always able to help them to regain control of what rightly belongs to them. I don’t have any resources available to me that any other person on the Internet has doesn't have access to. So I ask again, to the gentleman today that was defending people posting their phone numbers specifically. What can I possibly do with “just your phone number?”
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