We talk a lot about privacy on the net nowadays. Some claim that privacy is dead, and you just have to cope with it. Some are slightly less pessimistic. But all agree that our new cyber-society will redefine and reduce what we once knew as personal privacy.
The privacy threat is not monolithic. There are actually many different kinds of privacy threats and they are sometimes mixed up. So let’s set this straight and have a look at the three major classes of privacy.
This is about controlling what data you share with your family, spouse, friends, colleagues etc. Tools for doing this are passwords on web accounts, computers and mobile devices, as well as your privacy settings in Facebook and other social media.
This is the fundamental level of privacy that most of us are aware of already. When this kind of privacy is discussed, it is usually about Facebook privacy settings and how to protect your on-line accounts against hackers. Yes, protection against hacking is actually a sort of privacy issue too.
Who knows most about your life? You, your spouse or Facebook? Chances are that the service providers you use have the most comprehensive profile on you. At least if we only count data that is stored in an organized and searchable way. This profile may be a lot wider than what you have shared yourself. Google knows what you Google for and your surfing habits are tracked and blended into the profile. The big data companies also try to include as much as possible of your non-digital life. Credit card data, for example, is low-hanging fruit that tells a lot about us.
But what exactly are they doing with that data? It’s said that if you aren’t paying for the product, then you ARE the product. The multitude of free services on the net is made possible by business models that utilize the huge database. Marketing on the service provider’s own page is the first step. Then they sell data to other marketing companies or run embedded marketing. And it gets scary when they start to sell data to other companies too. Like someone who consider employing you or who need to figure out if you’re a high-risk insurance customer.
The main problem with provider privacy is that there aren’t any simple tools to guard you. The service provider can use data in their systems freely no matter what kind of password you use to keep outsiders out. The only way to master this is to control what data they get on you, and your own behavior is what matters here. But it is hard to live a normal cyber-life and fight the big-data companies. I have posted some advice about Facebook and plan to come back to other aspects of the issue in later posts.
The security and privacy of Internet is to a large extent enforced by legislation and trust, not by technical methods like encryption. But don’t expect the law to protect you if you do a crime. Authorities can break your privacy if there is a justified need for it. This can be a good compromise that guards both our privacy and security, as long as the authorities are trustworthy.
But what happens if they aren’t? Transparency and control are after all things that make the work harder for authorities, so they don’t like it. And a big threat, like terrorism for example, can easily be misused to expand their powers far beyond what’s reasonable. Authority privacy really becomes an issue when the working mode changes from requesting data on selected targets to siphoning up a broad stream of data and storing it for future use. There has been plenty of revelations recently showing that this is exactly what has happened in the US.
There can be many problems because of this. It is, first of all, apparent that data collected by US is misused. The European Union and United Nations are probably not very dangerous terrorist organizations, but still they rank high on the target list. Data collected by authorities is also supposed to be guarded well and used for our own good only. But keep in mind that a single person, Edward Snowden, could walk out with gigabytes of top secret data. He did the right thing and spoke out when his own ethics couldn’t take it anymore, and that’s why we know about him. But how many secret Snowdens have there been before him? More selfish persons who have exchanged data for a luxury life in some other country without going public. Maybe your data? Are you sure China, Russia or Iran don’t have some of the data that the US authorities have collected about you?
And let’s finally play a little game to remind us about how volatile the world is. Imagine that today’s Internet and computer technology was available in 1920. The Weimar republic, also known as Germany, was blooming in the golden twenties. But Europe was not too steady. The authorities had Word War I in fresh memory and wanted to protect the citizens against external threats. They set up a petabyte-datacenter and stored all mails, Facebook updates, cloud files etc. This was widely accepted as some criminal cases had been solved using the data, and the police was proud to present the cases in media. The twenties passed and the thirties brought depression and new rulers. The datacenter proved to be very useful once again, as it was possible to track everybody who had been in contact with Jews and communists. It also brought a benefit in the war to come because many significant services were located in Germany and foreign companies and state persons had been careless enough to use them. The world map might look different today if this imaginary scenario really had happened.
No, something like that could never happen today, you might be thinking. Well, I can’t predict the future but I bet a lot of people were saying the same in the twenties. So never take the current situation for granted. The world will change, often to the better but sometimes to the worse.
So lack of authority privacy is not something that will hurt you right away in your daily life. Your spouse or friends will not learn embarrassing details about you this way, and it will not drown you in spam. But the long term effect of the stored data is hard to predict and there are plenty of plausible harmful scenarios. This really means that proper privacy legislation and trustworthy authorities is of paramount importance for the Internet. A primary set of personal data is of course needed by the authorities to run society’s daily business. But data exceeding that should only be collected based on a justified suspicion, and not be kept any longer than needed. There need to be transparency and control of this handling to ensure it follows regulations, and to keep up peoples’ trust in the authorities.
So what can I do while waiting for the world to get its act together on authority privacy? Not much, I’m afraid. You could stop using a computer but that’s not convenient. Starting to use encryption extensively is another path, but that’s almost as inconvenient. Technology is not the optimal solution because this isn’t a technical problem. It’s a political problem. Political problems are supposed to be solved in the voting booth. It also helps to support organizations like EFF.
Little changes can make a difference. For instance, Twitter's decision to switch a star for a heart as its "Favorite" button increased use of the button by as much as 27.82 percent. And it's clear that despite Wall St. demanding that site grow faster and be easier for new users to grasp to have some hope of keeping up with competitors like Facebook and Snapchat, the site is still sweating the small stuff. Here are the four changes to the service announced this week: Replies: When replying to a Tweet, @names will no longer count toward the 140-character count. This will make having conversations on Twitter easier and more straightforward, no more penny-pinching your words to ensure they reach the whole group. Media attachments: When you add attachments like photos, GIFs, videos, polls, or Quote Tweets, that media will no longer count as characters within your Tweet. More room for words! Retweet and Quote Tweet yourself: We’ll be enabling the Retweet button on your own Tweets, so you can easily Retweet or Quote Tweet yourself when you want to share a new reflection or feel like a really good one went unnoticed. Goodbye, .@: These changes will help simplify the rules around Tweets that start with a username. New Tweets that begin with a username will reach all your followers. (That means you’ll no longer have to use the ”.@” convention, which people currently use to broadcast Tweets broadly.) If you want a reply to be seen by all your followers, you will be able to Retweet it to signal that you intend for it to be viewed more broadly. These tweaks are in line with Twitter's tradition of paying attention to how people use the site and make it easier for them to do what early adopters are already doing. That's how we got hashtags, retweet buttons and @ replies. Now you'll be able to tweet a bit longer messages, something people do now with screenshots of text, and have more public conversations, something people do now by putting a "." before someone's @username so their whole feed sees the conversation not just people who happen to follow you and the user you're conversing with. Cool. These are useful little nudges that will keep people who already love the site engaged -- even though they may have some ugly unforeseen consequences. But will they transform Twitter and spark a new wave of growth? Not likely. What would without alienating the hundreds of millions of loyal users? Tough question and we'd like to know what you think. [polldaddy poll=9429603] Cheers, Jason [Image by dominiccampbell | Flickr]
In 1853 a strange new invention appeared in the English cityscape, and caused a small wave of moral outrage among Victorians. This perceived threat to social order was not a new drug, political movement or saucy romance novel, but the seemingly harmless letter box. One reason was the shocking development of women now being able to post letters without consent from their husbands or fathers, and the other one was that sending anonymous letters would now be even easier. Maybe Victorians weren’t very thick-skinned, and were worried about unsigned letters calling people zounderkites and rantallions skyrocketing. Who knows? History now tells us that these attempts to control this early form of long-distance communication were ridiculous. And yet, a modern version of this debate is happening even today: there are those who want to make encrypted, anonymous communication available for everyone, and those who wish to restrict it. No new technology comes without drawbacks, and encryption is no exception. However, just as with the Victorian letter box, the pros greatly outweigh the cons. But why do people want to be anonymous online? Those who oppose encryption and other methods which advance online anonymity often throw around the tired argument “If you don’t have anything to hide, you have no need to be anonymous”. Not only does this statement show an astounding lack of perspective, it is also blatantly false. According to CBS there is a rising increase in desire for online anonymity, and there are many perfectly valid and legitimate reason to cover your tracks online. A lot of us just don’t feel comfortable with their Internet Service Provider, employer or even government having access to their surfing information. We all have a right to privacy, but technology is increasing the size of our digital footprint to the point when we can never know who is monitoring what we do online. Legislation, like the aptly nicknamed Snoopers Charter have the potential to give governments and ISP’s blanket rights to monitor web traffic of normal users in the name of security. This means the responsibility to protect our individual privacy rests increasingly in our own hands, and VPN services like our own Freedome go a long way in making that happen. For many people, it’s about control. We share aspects of our lives and personality on social media and other websites, but the choice of what we share should be ours to make. This control is taken away by advertisers and tracking companies, who collect information about us from different websites and piece them together to form elaborate dossiers which contain way more information about us than most would be comfortable sharing, like your medical information or what kind of porn you watch. For many, part of being anonymous online is blocking this kind of intrusive tracking, and it’s hard to find fault in that. The most serious group of people wanting anonymity are those for whom it is not so much a matter of principle but a matter of life and death. We are talking about activists, journalists and opposition supporters who operate under oppressive regimes or in places where criminals seek out and silence those who speak against them. It’s easy for those who support intrusive privacy legislation to forget that the governments who enact them will invariably have ulterior motives to “catching terrorists” or “protecting national security”: they give governments the power to control what we say. Open and free communication is the greatest tool the masses have to keep those in power accountable for their actions, and there is nothing open or free about the kind of mass surveillance which is happening more and more, legally and otherwise. What are your reasons to be anonymous online? This is not a black & white subject, and we’d be glad to hear your thoughts via the Freedome twitter channel @FreedomeVPN.
Allegations that Facebook "suppressed" conservative news, first reported by Gizmodo, quickly snowballed into broader charges that Facebook "censors" viewpoints its employees doesn't like. Facebook is the first access point to the internet for hundreds of millions if not a billion people around the world. And for millennials in the U.S., it is their primary source for political news. Some have suggested that the site could actually tilt the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Hence Facebook takes these allegations and the damage they've done to Facebook's image among conservatives seriously. Users will never be able to control the "Trending" section of the site, which Facebook insists is handled objectively as possible through curators (and, apparently, a lot of help from Google). But you do have some control over your news feed, which is generated by Facebook's algorithm "Edgerank." There are things you can do to influence your feed in hopes of seeing a diverse flow of information that doesn't simply confirm your biases. Here are 5: Get rid of the noise. Go to https://www.facebook.com/friends/organize and add the people you want to get less news from to your "acquaintances" list. You'll see their posts a lot less often and -- best of all -- they'll have no idea you've demoted them. Let Facebook do less of the picking for you. On the left column of your home page, under Favorites, next to News Feed click the arrow and select "Most Recent". This won't turn off Facebook's algorithm completely, but it will make it more likely you'll see a diversity of sources in your feed. Trust someone. Find a few people you respect who have a different political leanings than you and ask them for one Facebook page to follow. Just one? That's enough. Once you like the page, Facebook will help from there by suggesting a few pages with similar leanings. Of course, you're relying on Facebook's recommendations. But if you don't trust Facebook at all, this would be a good time to delete your account. Prioritize the new blood. Click on the down arrow in the upper right corner of any Facebook page and select "News Feed Preferences" and then select "Prioritize who to see first" and then on the dropdown menu select "Pages only." Now click on those new pages you just added to your stream -- along with the other valuable news sources you think help keep you informed. 5. Teach Facebook what you like. When you see something you like, click on it, comment on it, interact with it. Facebook exists to keep you in Facebook and will reward your clicks with similar content. And if you get a post you don't like, you can tell Facebook by clicking on that subtle little down arrow, which will show you this: Yes, you're sort of "censoring" your feed. But at least it's you doing it. Cheers, Jason [Image by Turinboy | Flickr]