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Privacy Matters

online privacyThere is a real downside to researching privacy issues and with each article you read, the more distressed and worried you become. It’s difficult to find an upside in even the most useful bit of information because each morsel of it is either a new revelation or a horrifying reminder that, if a snooper is determined enough, virtually nothing is private any more, so we need to know how exactly how bad things are and what we can do about it.

At best, every service you use, from the most innocuous pizza purchase to a banking transaction results in the generation of a flood of data and, as a recent commercial reminded me, “it’s all about you.” No kidding. And it is getting more and more difficult to decide where lines should be drawn in a world where a lack of data is nearly a criminal act of some sort.

What – you don’t want to give us your social security number? Are you an illegal alien? No phone number – are you a deadbeat? No address – How long have you been homeless? On the one hand, we are constantly chided for exposing ourselves to identity theft by failing to shred a receipt or piece of mail we weren’t even aware had ever been addressed to us. On the other hand, we are almost forced into using little plastic cards with names, account numbers and “security codes” printed right on the back.

Most places still take cash for small purchases, but given the price of filling a gas tank, and the fact that many fuel kiosks and convenience stores will not take large bills, you often can’t get very far unless you have planned ahead to have a wallet full of small bills or are willing to slide that card into a receptacle or hand it over to a clerk (a very bad idea even if the clerk remains directly in front of you and you watch every move).

Then there is going online and doing the simplest thing, like looking for the nearest place to get a haircut. Someone wants to know exactly whose computer conducted that search and where that computer is located. It might also be useful to know if that person needing a trim also belonged to a social network, banked online, shopped for shoes or wanted to learn about the latest treatment for depression. Oh, the searcher isn’t the one depressed, that would be their best friend’s boss. Never mind, the searcher has some interest in the topic and into the database it goes.

And this goes on day after day, week after week, for years in many cases. What is done with all this data? It can be used by the collector, which is big business by itself, but it can also be sold… and sold it is. All the time. Recently, a rather enterprising young graduate student named Christopher Soghoian had a doctoral dissertation to complete and came up with an interesting question for U.S. law enforcement and spy agencies, which was just how much phone companies and internet service providers charged them for whatever they wanted to know about subscribers.

In order to force the issue a bit more, he filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, presumably on the assumption that this information was anything but free and did, in fact, probably have a set price, a going rate as they say. On his blog, “Slight Paranoia,” Mr. Soghoian accuses these providers of being de facto government intelligence agencies in their activities which include as he states, “detailing the telephone numbers dialed, text messages, emails and instant messages sent, web pages browsed, the queries submitted to search engines, and of course, huge amounts of geolocation data, detailing exactly where an individual was located at a particular date and time.”

A further search turned up a brief summary of the replies from several providers on Wired.com, which also provided links to the lengthy and defensive replies. The one from Verizon was almost laughable as they claimed that, once customers knew that all this info was available, Verizon’s phone staff would be overwhelmed with calls from customers thinking they could also access the same information database.

Yahoo! was a bit more creative claiming, among many things, that the request was improper because there was no “standard” pricing for such things and also that, as reported by Wired.com, Mr. Soghoian might use the information: “to shame Yahoo! and other companies – and to ‘shock’ their customers.”

Alas, I am dismayed, but not even remotely shocked. These databases do exist, but what we don’t know is exactly who has access to them and how they are being used. The fact that privately held companies are turning over all kinds of information to the government-without cause-should be frightening to any citizen.