The Illusion of Privacy and Security

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The Illusion of Privacy and Security

So the other day I’m at Starbucks. I bought my coffee and went outside and took a few sips before I would be on my way, observing it was rather warm for a winter day in northern Illinois. While outside, I happened to look over my right shoulder and inside Starbucks, there’s a woman, sitting on her MacBook, her back to the window, so the screen is facing me, and she’s looking at her checking and savings account balances – and had pretty significant dollar amounts in each account. So, being the good guy (and information security freak) that I am, I go back into Starbucks to let her know that it’s not safe to do this because it leaves her susceptible to being robbed, scammed, her identity being stolen, or worse – you never know who is watching, that she should be more careful. She made some snide remark about me being nosy, but I put the idea into her head and she actually moved to a more secure position. Job well done, self.

This situation prompted me to consider the masses, and their false sense of security, or blatant oblivion, both off and online. Security has long been a huge issue and topic of discussion, and has become more ubiquitous since the 911 attacks. It has been discussed continuously, and suggestions, recommendations and precautions for staying safe are often offered, yet, people still don’t get it. The lady in Starbucks is a great example. How often do we mindlessly do things, unnecessarily putting ourselves into precarious positions or situations, because we are oblivious to the snares of everyday life – or the reality that everyone in the world isn’t good or have good intentions. It isn’t out of the ordinary to get online on my mobile device or laptop in a public setting, check emails and accounts, communicate with friends, colleagues and family – this is the norm of the day. Unfortunately, we don’t always know who is watching, who is behind us, or over our shoulders, waiting to “pounce” and take what we value.

The different ways people take for granted their safety and security physically, are even more so technologically. The illusion that I’m behind my keyboard in the privacy of my own home or office, so I’m good, is one that is repeated on too many occasions – as if everything you do online doesn’t leave a footprint or isn’t traceable. From posting racist or hurtful rants online to bullying on social media sites, to careless posting of personal information in conversations, or lewd photos of yourself or others. They’re all traceable.  Unfortunately, they are also used to create a perception of the person posting that may, or may not, be accurate.

These days, hiring companies go online to look at the history of a potential employee. They troll and scour the net to find reasons to, or not to, hire people. There are services that offer background information on people, without their consent or knowledge. Sites that list your past addresses, phone numbers, work history and etc. are everywhere online, tons of information on individuals is easily acquired if you know where to go, and how and who to ‘ask’.  Skilled techies are even able to get IP addresses and from these acquire physical addresses and locations of individuals. Every post online leads back to something or somewhere, and more importantly someone, and there are complex programs and systems used by the government and by companies to map your online activity into personality traits of people that, again, may or may not be correct or reflective of the people in which this information is collected. Have you ever been on a social media site and noticed that the advertisements presented to you on your page are determined by recent media searches and from places that you’ve recently visited online? Does that scare you at all? Or at least makes you stop and think about how they knew that you were either interested in this information, or looked it up? It should!

Multi-media giants, the search engine and technology goliaths, and social media titans benefit from the massive amounts of information collected, not just to market the right products to you, but also to sell and share their collected information with anyone who is either partnered or willing to pay top dollar for that information. Law enforcement and the “alphabet gangs” (i.e. FBI, CIA, PDs, etc.), use this information for profiling and regularly contact and beseech personal information of the public in their efforts to ensure “security” and “national order”. They have the ability to go as far as to contact your wireless carriers and the leading carriers in geographical areas to collect information on the geographical locations, of suspects, tapping into phone conversations and even acquiring text and email messages sent over these ‘wires’ and internet. Again, whether or not we believe it, or give permission is irrelevant, these complex systems are continuously and constantly collecting data on the public and mapping it into personality traits, and grouping people into preconceived and predetermined classes according to potential threat levels or possibilities. Many of these organizations believe that through this process, they are able to almost predict who would be a threat to local, state, national order or homeland security, and who wouldn’t. Scary thought isn’t it? Are you having flashbacks of Minority Report and the Matrix? Because that’s precisely where multimedia is heading.

My point in writing all of this is just to say that we all must be aware of our online activity, and the outcomes and potentials this activity creates.  I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist or a super-paranoid techie, but when the CEO of a major tech company (Google CEO Eric Schmidt) says that in the future, some people will have to change their names because of their past online history, I believe we should all take note and learn to be more careful of our online activity. The internet is a beautiful, innovative and exciting place, but as with most beautiful and exciting places, we must not get too caught up in the ‘pretty things’ and miss the ugly outcomes of making wrong turns or bad decisions, and making ourselves susceptible to the hidden traps these ‘pretty’ places possess. They are always lurking around one corner or another. Stay vigilant in protecting yourselves people!

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