Do we still have some privacy?

(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Do we still have some privacy?

Back in 1999 the Chief Executive Officer of Sun, a company which makes many of the computers used to store or route public records or credit card transactions, was already saying “You have zero privacy anyway - get over it”.

The way governments use or abuse digital technology to mess with our privacy has already been discussed in the previous chapter. Let’s then go through a quick review, thanks to some examples, of how other individuals can do the same, even if we don’t use a computer, and what this really means.

The official customers policy of was to never share customer data with any third party, but in mid-2000 they were caught while selling the e-mail and mailing addresses and shopping histories of 250,000 customers.

During a 2004 interview Steven Rambam, a private investigator, showed that he had been able to discover the Social Security number, address and other personal data of his interviewer in the previous 24 hours.

In July 2006 Internet Service Provider America Online placed on a public website the most recent Internet searches performed by more than 650,000 of its customers. The reason was to make those data available to Internet usage researchers. The published files did not contain the real names of those people, but were complete enough to make it possible to identify at least two of them. Consequently, several civil rights groups filed complaints with the USA Federal Trade Commission, but the damage had already been done.

The danger doesn’t only come from businesses. Even other individuals can seriously damage your privacy and reputation. Image search engine Polar Rose is developing a software that, when ready, will allow users to enter the identity of any face they recognize in online images (even without the consent of the owner of that face) into a central database. Everybody will then be able to search in that database all the online images which contain a given face.

In the meantime, it is already possible to get in trouble even without recurring to such sophisticated technologies. When two San Antonio students published an obscene web page in their administrator’s name, the result was a lawsuit against both the students and their parents, considering them guilty for not supervising their children’s activities online.

Of course, stupidity isn’t restricted to a single age range. During the summer of 2006, a 30 year old guy posted an online adult ad, pretending to be a woman, just to publish on the Internet all the pictures and messages he received in answer. Just for fun, of course.

Browsing the Internet like an elephant

The default (and for most people, the only) way to surf the net is still to leave a more or less signed track wider than an elephant herd. For example, the online portals of many newspaper and magazine use the same service to generate printable versions of their pages. In those cases, whenever one clicks on the “Print This” button he or she is redirected to a central site, different from the one originally visited, which handles the printing service for third parties. In this way, one site, always the same one, gets a detailed picture of what you consider worthwhile enough to print, even if you only visit websites which apparently are totally unrelated to each other. More information is available on thhis website.

Tattletale electronics

Sometimes the privacy attack is just embedded in the newest and most popular consumer devices. According to some reports, the maker of the famous Photoshop software, Adobe, is developing tools which will be able to match a digital photograph to the individual camera that shot it. Even selling your old cell phone can be a serious attack on your privacy: when some security expert, in August 2006, purchased ten used cell phones for a test, they found all kind of sensitive data on them, from passwords for bank accounts to prescription details which the previous owners had not erased correctly, when they had bothered to perform the proper procedure.

What about the dear old photocopiers used for everything from tax returns to insurance claims? Most models manufactured in the past five years “temporarily” store images on internal disk drives which in practice are almost never erased. Sometimes the photocopiers are sold with many of the copies they made still stored on the drive. The problem is so serious that in March 2007, just ahead of tax time, the Sharp Document Solutions Company had to issue a public warning about this risk.

The final lesson is the same in all cases: anything about you that you or anybody else divulges online or stores on some electronic device “can come back to haunt you, even when divulging that information is illegal”.