In this Digital age, your privacy is continuously invaded

Industries: General
Trends: Big Data

Nothing that you thought only you could see is safe anymore. Digital privacy cannot be trusted. I say this because something happened recently which prompted me to write this post. Spotify, the popular music application, revamped its privacy policy which contained shocking revelations regarding its use of personal user data. Spotify’s new policy declares that the company can access the photos, contacts and other personal data of its users. This news has sparked huge controversy to which Spotify responded with an urgent blog post stating that they should have done a better job in communicating the exact meaning of these policies and made it clear that only the information you choose to share will be used. But one does have to wonder whether the initial agenda was something else entirely. What if Spotify wants to know it all?

Finger touching Spotify app icon

The Spotify blog ensured users that they will be asked for express permission before sharing any data. In the end, I believe that the idea of Spotify wanting access to personal data seems to have been blown somewhat out of proportion across social media but it does raise an important question: are social media and IT giants using the IoT to gain access to personal data for sinister purposes? Will the concept of personal space and privacy become a myth in the future? Well, some factors indicate it might! If you think that the apps and software you use are free, you might want to think again. I mean, you may not be paying money but you are giving away personal data which is very valuable. Giants like Facebook, Apple and Google are in the race to know each and everything about you. The question that creates confusion is whether we are ready to share it!

In this post we will look at how privacy today is being invaded by large corporations and people in power. We will take a look at the lack of awareness internet users have about their digital privacy and the extent to which it is being used by governments and agencies to monitor individual behaviour. We will discuss how companies like Uber, Airbnb and Facebook might be using your information for profit and how this might also be causing you emotional harm! We also share some basic tips to protect your information from being exposed.

What is the meaning of privacy in the modern connected age?

The right to privacy is one the most fundamental human rights. Whether or not you share your personal information with someone is your decision to make. You have the right to protect information that others might use to bring you harm. But in the past 3 decades, large companies and governments have made secret, combined efforts to violate this right again and again. The threat to our right to privacy has never been greater as in the current digital age where everything and everyone is connected. Today, our cell phones are continuously connected to the internet. They contain all our information. Frankly speaking, when it comes to our personal lives, our digital footprints are like open books.

Video credits: Rising Response

Our Facebook profiles, our interests, how we spend or money when we shop online, our twitter activity, the photos we share, the videos we watch and each line we write online is most probably monitored and used to generate profit. Ask yourself, why do you lock your phone? It is because we do not want strangers to gain access to confidential information, right? What if we told you that this is exactly what’s happening without you even realising it? Not only that, recent whistle blowers also made us aware of how our governments may not only be keeping tabs on terrorists but they are also monitoring us and our daily activities. Creepy, isn’t it? The fact that we are being monitored, branded, categorised and used as a resource to maximise profits is a serious misuse of power and must be regulated. Sadly, one voice is not enough to do it. We should not be ignorant of these facts and we must be more careful about the information we share on the internet. It is not only our phones!

Today, each electronic device is turning into a smart device that is connected to the cloud. Information leaks out through digital media, social profiles and retail websites. Some people don’t realise the extent of this. The right to our privacy is our right to prevent someone we don’t trust from having power and control over our lives. Therefore, we should be more aware about what, where and how we share information, and whom we share it with.

Do you know how much information you share across the web?

Are you even aware of how much information you share? A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre in the US generated interesting findings related to people’s internet awareness. 1066 people were asked to answer 17 questions regarding various issues related to modern technology. What was interesting is that only 44% considered the following fact false: ‘Privacy policy means companies keep user information confidential’. This means that still more than half of the internet users do not believe that their privacy is being compromised! This is the kind of motivation advertisers need to crawl our social profiles. 56% of people believe that their information is safe. Talk about lack of awareness! These people have no idea of the reach organisations have when it comes to accessing private information such as, for instance, dating interests and travelling habits!

Information gaps are also generated by age differences. Older age groups that aren’t aware of the power of the IoT are obviously much more prone to privacy invasion than the younger generation which is statistically more clued up. Education gaps also fuel ignorance. It was found that college graduates have a much better understanding of the internet and its related technology than those with lower education. Recent surveys show that 86% of internet users have taken steps to remove or hide their digital footprints. They do this through various methods like deleting cookies, email encryption and using virtual networks to mask their IP addresses. 55% of internet users have already taken necessary steps to avoid being monitored by specific companies, organizations and governments. There is some good news though. Nearly 70% of internet users agree with the fact that the current laws are not good enough to protect online privacy. The sad part is that no authority is ready to listen. In 2009 only 33% of internet users were worried about their online privacy. Today, this number has jumped to 50% thanks to whistle blowers and information leaks. We are trying to be more aware but authorities seem blissfully ignorant when it comes to supporting this endeavour. Is this because of the fact that they, themselves violate our rights by monitoring us? What are your thoughts?

Your information is out there, and companies have already been caught helping themselves to it

Companies are already mining your information and using it for their own profit. If you have been following some of them online then you should be aware.

What Is Uber Really Doing With Your Data?

Uber has a mapping tool named ‘God View’ which reveals the location of vehicles and customers who book a cab. Corporate employees have access to this tool but cab drivers are not allowed to use it. The customers’ locations are always visible to the employees. There have been instances which suggest misuse of consumer data like in a recent blog post, where venture capitalist Peter Sims pointed out that Uber revealed his private location on a screen at a launch party. That would freak anyone out. I mean, information about your location can be obtained from the remotest corners of the globe and a few people have the power to do that. Uber says it uses consumer data only for legitimate business purposes but what does that even mean? How legitimate are these business purposes? It is hard to tell. Even when you delete your account, your information is still out there. Don’t you think that this is our decision to make? There is still no evidence of any inappropriate use of data by Uber so I guess we can trust them, for now…

Smartphone with Uber map and text

Things to keep in mind when giving away your ID to Airbnb

Recently some Australian customers raised concern about their privacy when Airbnb asked them to upload videos for verification before being selected for room-sharing deals. Its privacy policy mentions that parts of your public profiles that contain personal information may be shown in other parts of the platform for marketing purposes. This means your photos or reviews or even the videos you are asked to upload for places that you stay at may be used for promotional and marketing campaigns! And there you were, thinking that the details you give out are yours only, not to be used for other people’s profit generating purposes. But it is clear that there are loopholes in their privacy policy too! Refusal to upload videos often results in rejection, resulting in customers feeling violated on the grounds of privacy. I think that it is justified. Airbnb on the other hand, claims that providing verification tools for guests and hosts is an important part of building trust in the Airbnb community. They believe it assists people in making informed decisions about travelling to unfamiliar places. There is no doubt that the argument is strong, but the question here is whether these are the only reasons for collecting this information. Or are Facebook profiles used by Airbnb to gain insight into preferences for marketing purposes? There may just be another hidden agenda here.

There is also speculation that Airbnb may be using big data and related analytics to nudge owners to list their accommodation at prices which Airbnb deems profitable. It has introduced a tool called ‘Price Tips’ which provides users with guidance on their accommodation rates, resulting in higher occupancy. A little coerced, don’t you think?

Facebook Apps – how they monitor your profile and track your information

In 2010, a Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that the most popular Facebook apps do in fact transmit personal details which, in some instances, are revealing in nature. These apps transmit people’s names and their friends’ names to numerous advertising and internet tracking companies. By using these apps, not only are your personal details accessed, but also those of your friends… Now imagine the millions of active Facebook users at any given time. Their information is potentially unsecure too and easily accessible to advertisers and internet marketers who use preferences, interests and likes to formulate individually targeted marketing strategies.The apps jn question were hugely popular pieces of software including FarmVille (Zynga Game Network Inc.), Texas HoldEm Poker and ForntierVille. These apps were transmitting personal information to external companies without any notification whatsoever to the user. In an immediate attempt to curb the incident, many apps were suddenly made unavailable to users. The reasons were not disclosed. These apps were sending information to at least 25 advertising companies and data firms. What’s even more worrying is that Facebook’s policies dictate that data transmission to such firms is strictly not allowed for these apps. After this incident took place they reviewed the loopholes in the software to discontinue the violation of this policy.

Rapleaf, an app involved in this incident stated that the transmission of personal data was unintentional and happened as a result of programming errors. My question is: why is there no regulatory mechanism through which we can ensure that sharing of private information doesn’t take place? The issue has been resolved for now, but is there any guarantee that it won’t happen again without us noticing it?

The Apple Data Fiasco of 2011: They know where you are!

In 2011, two researchers found something unusual in a file on Apple’s iPhone. It contained the data of locations visited by users over the last 12 months. They reported it and a controversy ensued where fears arose that Apple was tracking its users. It led to investigations by various governments from Europe and raised demands for explanations by the US lawmakers. Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, even sent a letter to Apple asking them the reason for this secret data collection. Apple confirmed the security researchers’ speculations and explained that the file on the phone wasn’t a log of locations but the locations of Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers surrounding the iPhones’ location. It means that they were using people’s phones as sensors to identify places with network and internet.

Steve Jobs holding Apple iPhone

No explanation was given, however, about why these sensors were recording data even when location access was turned off, why this information was not encrypted and why the data was kept for such a long time. The concerns were shrugged off as mistakes which would be resolved with a software update. This incident also led to Google acknowledging that it collected similar data through its android phones. This data anomaly by Apple is one of the many kinds of tracking which goes on through our smart devices. Therefore, the next time you want to travel anonymously, make sure you turn off ‘location access’ in your phone’s settings.

See also: Privacy in 2025 – a big problem

General Motors Privacy Policy admits to vehicle monitoring even after cancellation of their GPS service OnStar

Back in December 2011, General Motors’ new Privacy Policy regarding their GPS based system OnStar, raised quite a bit of concern among users. The first shock was that the tracking continues even after a customer cancels the service, meaning that information like vehicle speed, location, odometer readings, seat belt usage and airbag deployment is transmitted to the company indefinitely. That means GM knows exactly where you are and what you do at all times. I can’t think of a more heinous example of privacy violation. How can they justify this? The bottom line is that the tracking continues even if you cancel this service. To completely remove the tracking, you have to manually disable the two-way communication link by requesting it. The second issue that raised concerns was the fact that OnStar reserves the right to share this information. How can it reserve the right without proper and prior permission? Who would they share this data with? Will this data be used to target potential customers? For instance, if you just had an accident and are looking to change your car, the company and all other car companies might know it without you even noticing!

General Motors stated that the information collected is aggregated and made anonymous before being sold, thereby clearly indicating that information renting and selling is very real. I am sure that next time you switch on your GPS it will have a slightly different feel to it!

You’re licence plates are being traced, whether you have committed a (traffic) offense or not

Police forces and companies are using modern digital technology to track license plates and build a database of billions of data points. There is no screening whatsoever and it doesn’t matter whether you did something wrong or not. Surveillance technologies have become cheaper and more sophisticated in the past couple of years. They are permanently connected to the cloud and transfer billions of digital data points in mere seconds. The video here shows how different companies can use the data to track your information and make a long term profit by analysing driving and traffic history. For instance, the sheriff’s vehicle (which has 49 cameras) has already scanned about 2 million unique plates. These license plates contain revealing information about people’s locations.

Video credits: Wall Street Journal

In 1998, a police lieutenant in Washington DC pleaded guilty to extortion after he looked up the plates of vehicles near a gay bar and started blackmailing the car owners! The police can generally obtain this information without acquiring any prior approval. What’s more: people can install GPS trackers on other people’s cars through a court order! To make a long story short: the tracking of license plates is going on incessantly without any regulation, and the data can be used for obscure purposes like we saw above. While the plates may not contain the owners’ names and addresses, the information can still be used to track them down using Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) databases. There is a strong argument that this kind of operation results in far more efficient tracking of stolen vehicles and other transport related crimes, but at the same time we need to ask ourselves whether the random tracking of license plates without our knowledge can be justified. What are your thoughts on this?

Privacy may be non-existent in the future. Could that be good in any way?

Everything is connected in some or other way. Connectivity has moved beyond Silicon Valley and has given governments and organizations the ability to spy on us. With technologies like smart TV’s, self-driving cars and wearables, the possibility that privacy may be non-existent in the future is very real. We are well on our way to seeing privacy transform from a fundamental right into something which is a non-existent social norm. A classic paper on the right to privacy, written by Warren and Brandeis for the Harvard Law Review in 1890, outlined how the ills of modern media affect society. Unauthorised circulation of information like pictures was one of the paper’s prime focus areas. Social information units have become a currency ruled by supply and demand of the marketing and advertising industry and used illegitimately for profit.

However, there may be some benefit to it all. One can infer that the accessibility of certain critical information is essential for the proper functioning of a democracy. With too much privacy, society tends to lean towards secrecy which can also be harmful. Certain sectors have hugely benefited from the dilution of privacy. Take healthcare for instance. Data which was considered confidential a decade ago is now readily available to medical professionals and institutions through sensors, health apps and smart devices. It has shifted the power and control over one’s health from the doctor to the patient who is now much more equipped to opt for a better course of treatment. We are residents of a hyper-active age. It may be possible that our transition from an analogue to a digital era is responsible for our attachment to privacy which was very important in the analogue days where intrusions were far more profound.

In time we may realise that privacy dilution may in fact do some good if it is regulated in such a way that our privacy is not compromised to the point where it becomes blatant intrusion and harassment. We are living in a time where anyone can get hacked. We have our own unique digital footprint which is available all across the cloud and accessible to the right and the wrong people. The thrilling fact is that we have only just begun. As the time approaches when the IoT reaches its peak, it is highly possible that privacy as we know it will no longer exist.

Video credits: Xprize

How do you protect your online privacy (well, as much as you can)

Since few of us are capable of launching a full on one-man war against privacy invasion, we need to make our own individual decisions about how much we want to share and how much we want to protect. While sharing some details such as health and fitness data may provide some benefits, financial information and other private data falling into the wrong hands can have serious consequences.

Here are some tips to help you protect vital personal information:

Delete Cookies

This is the most basic and one of the easiest ways to protect your information. Cookies allow websites to collect information about your online activities. On most browsers you can find privacy settings which block third party cookies. This protects your information to a certain extent. However, it is not a foolproof solution. Companies these days are using new kinds of targeting methods like fingerprinting which can be much tougher to avoid.

Log out each time you’re done browsing social media sites

This is another simple and effective way to protect vital information. You can use different browsers for different online services. This decreases the amount of information that a particular website can collect about your online activity. For instance, only use an online shopping site when you are not logged in on Facebook.

Take care of your smartphone’s privacy settings

As smartphones are becoming the most used electronic device across the globe, mobile targeting is growing by leaps and bounds. Advertisers are using phones and apps to track your online activity like what you send, what games you play and more. You can easily change the privacy settings on your android or iPhone to limit this kind of tracking.

Use advanced online tools

If you are willing to go the extra mile to maintain your privacy then you can learn how to use advanced security tools. Browser add-ons like help you block tracking requests. A search engine named DuckDuckGo makes a legal promise to not share your personal information. Browsers like Tor allow you to surf the net anonymously.

Browse privately with in incognito mode

Every major browser has this facility. It allows you to prevent people with physical access to your computer from seeing your online activity. Cookies are automatically deleted and browsing history cleared when the private window (incognito mode on Chrome) is closed.

Today, online targeting is the most common type of advertising and marketing. Every company that promotes its products and services online is interested in your social and digital profiles. Currently, invasion of personal privacy encompasses monitoring, categorising, analysing and studying our online behaviour to make predictions about our real-life behaviour. I believe it is unethical and immoral. Websites like give you details about whether your mobile carrier is tracking your mobile activities. Have you used it? After reading all of this, you might want to start. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know who’s watching – without them knowing you’re watching?

In this Digital age, your privacy is continuously invaded from Richard van Hooijdonk

Industries: General
Trends: Big Data
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