Conversations about life & privacy in the digital age

Staring Into The Black Mirror

These dark, reflective surfaces are everywhere now. Whether you’re out at a club, in an art gallery or just sitting at home on your sectional couch, it’s more than likely that there are multiple devices in the same room as you. They’re impossible to get away from as now they have become essential for people’s professional life and for their social one too. The question is whether this is a problem that needs to be reassessed or a fantastic force for good. One of the most important aspects is that a lot of these items share a trait and that is their near constant connection to the internet.

Pretty much every single new mobile phone, tablet PC and laptop is online or has the capacity to be online. Long gone are the days where wires were necessary. Now it is as simple as checking a single box in the “settings” part of your device and you’re ready to go. The entire world is now at your fingertips, literally. This must be having some kind of effect on people and one of them is that people are becoming more and more relaxed about being online, and in turn about how much personal information they allow to be stored there.

Constant technological advances have completely changed large parts of the world, and as technology becomes cheaper its spread becomes wider. The number of devices connected to the internet has surpassed 8 billion in number, with some reports suggesting there will be 30 billion of them in 2015. We are always connected now and this means people are open to see everything from your wedding day to your breakfast, but is this really a problem? A lot of this information is trivial with anything important hidden in a sea of low quality photography and inane status updates.

Of course the depth of the sea does little to put off salvage divers, and if people want your information they will make an effort to find it. So why is it that when people are still wary of giving out details over the phone they are perfectly happy to do it in an instant over the internet? The numerous stories of successful internet scams are testament to this. It’s hard to believe someone falling for the Nigerian prince scam over the phone, isn’t it?

The internet is no longer a scary place to people. It has lost its intimidating demeanor along with hellish dial-up noises, modems and wires. The world wide web now sits neatly in your hand just waiting to order you a pizza with any special request you desire, and all without the hassle of having to talk to a real person. This is the issue.

The internet has become easy to use and inviting to everyone while at the same time being de-personalised. You can use a website like Facebook for years without ever having correspondence with a real member of staff. Everything is automated for you and it becomes easy to forget that Facebook is a company like no other and that it stores everything you do. You are now welcome to download all of the information Facebook has on you, but rather than serve to relax the customer it is in fact a stark reminder of how lax you have been with your own security.

This may sound like hyperbole, but feel free to try out a little experiment for yourselves. If you so wish, pick a random friend from Facebook. You don’t have to know them personally, but as long as they’re pretty active they’ll do fine. Try as hard as you can to glean as much information from their profile over the space of a month. The amount of data you would have at the end of those 30 days may come as a shock to you.

Thanks to the check-in option you will have known exactly where they’ve been, for what reason, and at what time. You’ll know what job they have, what clothes they’ve been wearing and most of the activities they’ve undertaken. You will have learned a large amount of their interests. Most worryingly of all you’ll most likely know where they live and a rough schedule of their life. This sort of information is a goldmine for stalkers and companies alike. But with bills like SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) being just the beginning of government attempts to find the place in the virtual world, it is easy to imagine other sinister uses for your personal data. Oppressive regimes around the world already try to employ these tactics, but even now the British government is trying to bring in a law that will allow it to see everything you do online in real time.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. There are some very simple ways to help keep you in control of your information online. The first and most obvious step is to simply consider what you post online and what is linked to you. A search of your own name with a few defining parameters like your location could bring up a few surprising results. You could of course remove yourself from websites like Facebook, but it pays to be realistic here.

Facebook and other social sites aren’t essential to you, but they’re very important. Just remember, you control what you post online so make yourself your own filter. If you’re worried about companies gaining to much info on you, try to switch to open source alternatives. Rather than Microsoft Word, use Open Office; rather than using Apple’s operating systems change to Ubuntu; or rather than Photoshop, make use of GIMP. The best thing is they’re all free too.

There are simple solutions all over the internet to help you learn what data you should be giving out and to whom. If you really want to go all out, I would suggest using the Tor Browser and converting all your money to Bitcoins. In turn though, that is probably the equivalent of moving into a bomb shelter permanently on the off chance you may get attacked. All you need to do is pay attention. It’s not the time for complete online anonymity yet, but it’s never bad idea option to keep u with the game and keep your options open.


  1. David Hawkins says:

    You said, "If you're worried about companies gaining to much info on you, try to switch to open source alternatives." That's like stepping from the frying pan into the fire. Those who host these alternatives for free are certainly building detailed dossiers of all users for sale to advertisers, and for turning over to the authorities at the drop of a court order. We're all much better off using our local programs to generate content, and having that content backed up securely at SpiderOak.

  2. Chip says:

    Examining what your friends do doesn't really prove much. Chances are they *want* you to see that, so it's a poor example of a privacy violation. The much scarier idea is that people who aren't your friends (like Facebook, Facebook game developers, and their advertising partners) can see that data too. And that's very hard to demonstrate.

    Switching to Open Source alternatives is actually missing the point entirely. Microsoft gains no access to your data when you use Microsoft Office because your documents are still stored on your computer. It's the same as OpenOffice. The problem is when you start storing that data online with things like Google Docs or Windows Live. It's not about programs. It's about services.

    It's going to get blurrier in the future, too. Mobile OSes and new desktop OSes are integrating cloud services heavily — even Ubuntu is getting into the game. It's important to read the privacy policies to see where your data may be going. As a general rule of thumb, companies have very little need to monetize your data when you're already paying them for the service. And the core advice of this article still stands: People can't misuse data you don't give them.

    I don't think I could recommend putting all your money in Bitcoins, though. It's hard to buy food that way. :]

  3. JP says:

    Yolanda, mi point of view is closer to yours, but it is curious that an post that advocates open source software is published in the official blog of an application / service that is not.

    I trust on SpiderOak developers, and really apreciate several packages they offer for several Linux distros. In fact, SpiderOak is my only backup and sync between my three computers and my Android device, because the safety way you propose. Anyway, I encrypt previously my most sensitive data on the basis of the closed source of your desktop software.

    Why? You say "zero-knowledge", but how could I check? What would be the response of SpiderOak to a federal order to include a backdoor in the software, with the "zero-knownledge" on the side of the customer? You're an USA based company…

    The only way for SpiderOak to guarantee a 100% transparency is open the source of your desktop software, so can be audited.

    @David Hawkins, really, you don't understand the difference between freeware and free software (as in freedom) or Open Source, isn't?

  4. @lypsis says:

    I absolutely agree to "JP"'s comment and would be very interested to know what SpiderOak has to say about his arguments. I thought about them several times, too.

    Don't get me wrong, I love and trust SpiderOak – it is my favourite and only Backup & Sync solution, too. But this things JP asked and said would be really interesting to know.

  5. Hexagonal says:

    I agree with JP completely.
    How can we trust Spider Oak if the client software is closed-source?
    Why they don't open the source code? Look at their explanations, oh, it needs to be maintained, so difficult.
    What a … — you just provide official client source code, and don't take responsibility for any modifications, very simple.
    Instead the company gives set of kind of batch files, or insignificant utilities.
    Want to keep an NSA back-door in client, what should we think?