Sunday, June 16, 2013

Life, Liberty, and... Privacy?!

The Wall Street Journal, June 8, 2013

Is the dream of freely-shared data dead?

Maybe.

In the wake of the (not-so-startling) revelation that the NSA has been tapping the databases of Facebook and Google, the question of online privacy has once again reared its ugly head.

The issue, though, is far from new. Over the last few years, several events and media warnings have helped sink the idea that sharing our personal data in exchange for goods and services is a good deal. In fact, some incidents have made it seem like a very bad deal indeed.

Below is a look at the dream, its slow death, and why anonymity may be the way of the future.


The Dream

Back in 2010, I talked about privacy as the new online currency… with people freely sharing their personal data in exchange for new, personalized goods and services. What started with Facebook forcing us to use our real names and identities slowly turned into people freely sharing their location, interests, and more.

At first, the dream was good. We were rewarded with perks (like coupons for Foursquare check-ins) and personalization (like relevant advertising). We could find our iPhone if we ever lost it, find singles to date in our immediate area, and build the ultimate online resume (really, a showcase of our professional lives).

And the more the internet knew us, the easier our lives became. Our devices could talk to each other and access our personal data to tailor themselves to our preferences. For example, our air conditioning could turn on to cool our house when we were on our way home. The dream was alive, and led straight to the fabled "Internet of Things". Everything around us would soon be connected — to each other, and to us.


WIRED June 2013

WIRED December 2012


The Warnings

The dream, of course, still exists. But it is no longer pure. Warnings have popped up over the past few years which have collectively made us stop and rethink our own perpective on privacy. The first comes from the original data miner: Facebook. As the social network faced growing concerns about its privacy policies — especially in lieu of its IPO — sentiment towards the giant began to change. Would Facebook try to directly profit from our data?

Next, Google, and its consolidation of all of our personal data through our Google Accounts (and Google+ profiles). Google changed its privacy policies so that each of its products — search, Gmail, maps, Android, everything — worked from the same set of personal data. Google knew everything about us, and the implications of this slowly set in. How will advertisers use this data? Would certain groups of people (say, Apple users) see higher prices than others?

Finally, the big one: government. With the war on terror and the increased use of surveillance technology, it was becoming clear that the government — "Big Brother" — knew more about us than ever. Through data mining and micro-targeting, governments could craft messages that were tailored to specific groups, and even households, based on data about their political leanings and beliefs. Sensors and cameras were installed everywhere, tracking our movements and looking for suspicious behaviour.

MacLean's April 23, 2013


The Toronto Star August 2012


MacLean's October 13, 2012


Collateral Damage

Then came the failures, each of which pushed the dream to the brink and aided the renewed push for privacy. We began to read stories about major data breaches and hacking scares, which made us realize how easy it was for our data to be stolen. Sony suffered a huge security breach when the personal and credit card information of many of its PS Network users was compromised. Though the company placated its users with free game downloads, the damage was done. Sony was one company of many.

In a WIRED cover story titled "Hacked", Mat Honan tells the startling story of how his entire life was stolen when a hacker took control of his online identity. "In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook. In many ways, this was all my fault."

And now, the NSA. Is it really such a surprise, considering the way the wind was blowing, that a surveillance system like this existed? Not really. What was surprising, though, was the amount of data that the US government had access to. Many of the walled gardens that we had entrusted our data to — and primarily, Facebook and Google — were not so impenetrable after all. Not only did the NSA have access to a back door, an alternate entry point that allowed it to scan through our personal data, that access was sanctioned by our social networks.


WIRED August 2012

MacLean's June 24, 2013


So, I'll ask again. Is the dream of freely-shared data dead?

Maybe, maybe not. But in light of recent events, the conversation — and perception — has definitely shifted.

Has your view of your privacy changed over the past few years?

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