Monday, April 14, 2014

Who has your data, and why you should be extremely concerned.

Big Brother goes by a new name these days – Big Data. That’s the term for the process of collecting your sensitive – and sometimes confidential – information.  With more and more people online and using high tech in their daily lives, it’s hard to ignore the Big Data knocking on the front door.  There are news reports, lawsuits, and shocking secrets revealed nearly every week about who’s accessing our data like never before.

In general, there are two entities that have an interest in gathering as much data as possible about your life: Law enforcement and private companies.  Law enforcement agencies ostensibly collect data to identity and stop terrorist threats in the name of homeland security.  Private companies, however, collect data to make money.

Let’s start with an obvious data thief – social media.  Facebook is by far the largest social media platform, estimated at a $100 billion company.  Google is valued even higher, at $300 billion.  Yet, they are still free to the user.  How is that possible?  Facebook and Google aren’t in the business of offering free services; they aggressively collect your data and “deliver it to lucrative advertising platforms.” 

And all of those free social media apps?  How do they make money?  By collecting and reselling your data.  Have you noticed that they’re eager to have you sign in with your Facebook login or email address?  Every time you do that, they’re downloading every tiny atom of your personal information stored within.  Why is it that when you click on a link to an article you see posted on Facebook it often opens the article within Facebook’s “umbrella browser?”  Facebook wants you to stay in their platform so they can track what you’re looking at and clicking.  Free is not free when you pay with your data.
Think about what kind of access to the nooks and crannies of your life the cell phone companies have.  They have every single one of your texts, your phone calls sent and received and the actual recordings, what you used your internet for, and where you are with GPS.

10 major auto manufacturers – including Ford, GM, Nissan, Toyota, and Chrysler - now collect data from your car’s GPS and onboard computer for resale.  Twitter, Yelp, Foursquare, and Instagram, and many others have been caught mining address books in smartphones without user knowledge or permission.  It’s been estimated that up to 11% of free mobile apps from iTunes do the same thing.  How omniscient is Big Data?  When Alexis Madrigal, a journalist for The Atlantic, started a big story on data mining in 2012, she expected to find about ten companies who were collecting consumers’ every online behavior.  She found 105.   

What kind of data are they collecting on you?

Website activity - who you interact with, how long, and in what capacity
What pages and posts you Like, share, and comment on.
Videos watched and uploaded online
Photos viewed, saved, and uploaded online
Cell phone conversations, numbers, and data
Mobile phone locations through GPS
All social media activity
Websites visited, how long, etc.
Emails sent and received
Mobile phone apps downloaded
Text messages sent and received
Skype video calls
Viber, What’sApp, etc. conversations
Online purchases
Credit card and debit card transactions
Financial information from bank accounts, retirement and investment accounts, etc.
Court and legal documents
Travel documents
Health records
Credit score
Commuter tolls
Electronic bus and subway passes (Smartpass)
Education records
Arrest records
Bankruptcy records
Drivers license information
IRS records
Airport security information
Webcam footage
ATM video footage
Security video footage
What videos you watch on Netflix, etc.
What you buy on Amazon, Ebay, etc.
IP addresses of what computer you use, where it is.

Why should we worry?  The infringement into our privacy is a slippery slope into threats to our civil liberty.  With technology evolving at a rate faster than laws can be written, the definitions of what’s lawful and what’s clandestine are blurred beyond accountability, and the next logical step, already unfolding, is to manipulate and control over behaviors, not just spy on them. 

Just as frightening, human beings are not even steering the data piracy ship anymore.  Companies use algorithms to collect, analyze, and interpret our data in order to tailor our next Internet search or usage.  For instance, if you’re doing a bunch of online research into vacations in Alaska, watch how quickly Facebook starts posting ads for similar subject matter, or who quickly, EBay, etc. will suggest similar content.  Our every click is used to predict and steer our future consumer behavior. 

Did you know that Google even alters your search results based on your past searches?  The result is a skewed access to information, that’s supposed to be neutral and universal, and a skewing of information reality.  Analysts and watchdogs call the rise of cyclical data phenomena and algorithms, “getting caught in a filter bubble.”

Your credit rating is based on an algorithm, as are airport security procedures and IRS audits.  But when consumer behavior intersects law enforcement and even military action based on algorithms, human beings are no longer making decisions.  The National Security Agency uses monitors our emails, phone calls, and bank records, and locations to try and identify terrorists.  But our military also uses data and algorithms to target drones to deliver explosives in Pakistan and Afghanistan, a practice highly criticized by the world’s human rights community has.

As we found out when NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden turned over sensitive NSA and CIA documents, the government has its hands in just about data pie, forcing tech companies to turn over your data under the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act.   It was also disclosed that the NSA collects millions of webcam images from Yahoo when users thought they were completely private, many of them of an “Intimate, amorous, and compromising nature.”  Social media companies like Google and Facebook as well as telecommunications companies have entire departments dedicated to turning over data per government surveillance requests.  The phone carrier Sprint set up a website in 2009 that allowed law enforcement to directly access users’ GPS information.  They received 8 million governmental and law enforcement requests in the first year alone.

Now think about the potential danger of automating data collection by adding advanced facial recognition software to the process.  Does that sound like a far-out futuristic conspiracy theory?  What do you think the “Tagging” of photos on Facebook is all about? 

Of course, tech and other companies, law enforcement, and governmental agencies say you shouldn’t be worried.  One Google executive is on record as saying: “Worrying about a computer reading your email is like worrying about your dog seeing you naked.”  However, your dog isn’t taking photos of you and selling them online.  Or, to put the issue of trampling our privacy and civil liberties in Orwellian terms, we can take notice of the advice from the Domestic Surveillance Directorate, prominently displayed at the top of their public website: 

“Your Data: If You Have Nothing to Hide, You Have Nothing to Fear.” 

1 comment: