Privacy For Sale

On a recent flight from Costa Rica to Toronto, I was required to show my passport 9 times and was searched 3 times, most of which was required because of a flight connection in the US. The ordeal brought on flashes of wartime movies where suspicious Gestapo officers checked travelers’ papers on night trains to Switzerland and I wondered, “Isn’t this what our forefathers fought and died to prevent?” We tolerate these distortions of democracy because we believe that they are the lesser of two evils: it is better to live with the loss of privacy and freedom than to live in fear of crime and terrorism.

Some surveillance may be necessary in order to protect citizens but new technologies have made possible the collection of personal data by governments, groups, companies and individuals with few, if any, restrictions. They can enter your home, steal from you and leave without your knowledge. They offer no compensation or benefit in return. The transaction, if you could call it that, is purely one sided and it is making some people very rich. Many of the names of these companies you will never know or recognize, but there are also companies that everybody knows such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google who are among the worst offenders.

We used to keep our valuables in vaults or banks but today there is a new “valuable” – it is you! Buying preferences, likes and dislikes are helping advertisers get directly to the people who are most likely to buy their products. It may seem like a small efficiency but the collection of personal information about individuals is already a 30+ billion dollar business and it is expanding quickly. “Real-time bidding” is the presentation of advertising based on your recent Internet uses. The highest bidder gets to advertise to you based on your profile which may inspire images of the slave trader auctions of the 1800s.

For example, not long ago, I bought a digital SLR and went to the manufacturer’s web site to register for the warranty. I was puzzled when shortly after that everywhere I went on the Internet there were ads for the camera I had just purchased. The information didn’t “leak” from the manufacturer, but from the “tracking cookies” that were placed on my computer that were sending information to unknown people about my Internet research on the camera.

Although this was an invasion of my privacy, this example may seem relatively harmless, but the potential for harm is huge. Could your life insurance be cancelled because you showed interest in a high-risk sport like hang gliding? Could your research into alternative cancer treatments become known to, and possibly influence a prospective or current employer? Emerging technologies will require home appliances to be connected to the Internet. “Smart Appliances” will have the potential to report every time you open your fridge or turn on your stove. They will be able to measure your carbon footprint and send you a bill. The potential for abuse is enormous!

Technologies have given us some new freedoms but they have also created new challenges that without regulation and controls could cause serious harm. The EU is leading the way with controls on the collection of personal information from the Internet. Canada is expected to follow their lead but the “devil is in the details”. The business of tracking Internet users is exceptionally lucrative making deterrents such as fines and prosecutions irrelevant. For information pirates, these are considered just a cost of doing business.

Facebook provides no content – its users do that. Facebook collects the information you provide and sells it to advertisers – that is their business. They have been fined and accused of collecting data even when the user has “opted out” of their collection. They have also been accused of retaining data even when the user has deleted it.

The government of France refused to use Microsoft products because in their words the software was design to make it easy for others to get into their data. Google has an equally dismal record, yet Obama selected Facebook and Google as his advisers on Internet privacy policy. This is like assigning the fox to protect the chicken coup. He is not serious about protecting citizens’ privacy.

Regulation of information collection is expected from the (Canadian) Privacy Commission, but I am prepared to bet that it will have little effect on curtailing the “money junkies” from collecting your personal information. There is just so much money to be “made”. The better way to stop information theft is to charge the companies who use the information. The Information Highway (as it once was called) is the equivalent of the 401 with lots of potential dangers – there may be laws but you have to be aware and protect yourself.

Some easy ways to protect your information include using multiple browsers rather than one, thus limiting access to parts of your profile. You can buy a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service for about $5/month. You can shut off cookies in your browser and turn them on only when visiting known and trusted sites; and you can write the Privacy Commissioner when you feel your freedoms have been violated. They only get involved in prosecutions when someone complains.

Personal profiling on the Internet is dangerous because we don’t know what information is being trapped or by whom. We also don’t know who will use it and for what purpose. It can be moved anywhere in the world in an instant and it may be kept forever. That concerns me and it should concern you, as well. The information belongs to you because it is part of who you are. It is being taken from you without your knowledge and permission in most cases, and although it is not a tangible, it is of significant value. We have laws about stealing your physical property. Your personal preferences, interests and desires, though intangible, are still your property and need to be protected with the same intention and determination as your money.

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