The Oxymoron of Online Privacy

computerYou think the things that you do online are between you and your computer.  Not so.  From your internet provider, to your cell phone carrier, to lawmakers, your cyber-privacy is constantly being chipped away.  Before you post to a social media site or browse the internet for that report you’re compiling on pedophiles, here are some things to keep in mind about how your actions on the internet are anything but private.

SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act,” recently received a lot of media attention.  Like most legislative bills, the surface intent seemed sound: give holders of copyrighted material in the United States some teeth to stop the illegal distribution of their property, even when the server housing the copyrighted music, videos, etc. is offshore. Unfortunately, the bill required such sweeping enforcement that Google public policy director Bob Boorstin stated, “YouTube would just go dark immediately.” If you unwittingly posted a video of your niece singing along to the latest Taylor Swift tune you could be blocked from Facebook and by your internet provider and burden of proving your innocence would be on you.

Hawaii’s legislature was recently considering a bill that would have required internet providers to maintain detailed records of user’s online activity (http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/session2012/bills/HB2288_.htm).  The websites Hawaii citizens visited would have been tracked and maintained by internet service providers for at least two years.  This law was met with immediate protest by internet providers, businesses, and consumer rights activists and is being revised.

Law writing is understandably a difficult endeavor, but when you add to that the complexity of the internet, it’s easy for lawmakers to end up backing bills that give away your rights. Even though SOPA received enough back lash from the tech community and opponents like Google and Facebook to be indefinitely “postponed”, there are similar laws pending such as the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN) that seek to improve enforcement of copyrights online. If you access sharing or social media sites, be aware of these laws and how they might affect you or the sites you patronize.

The policies of the websites you use and your internet service providers make the most impact on how much information about your activities is tracked and/or sold.

A new Google privacy policy is being rolled out on March 1st.  Google insists that it streamlines over 70 different privacy agreements into one simple cross-platform policy that’s clearer and easier for users to understand.  Opponents point out that it allows any information you’ve shared or created on one Google platform (like Gmail, YouTube, Google+, etc) to be shared across ALL Google products.  The fear is that Google will soon have a “massive, all-inclusive database of your most private information, from your political leanings to your searches for prescription drugs. And there’s nothing you can do about it, short of giving up your Google habit.” (http://www.tecca.com/news/2012/01/25/google-privacy-policy-change-march-1-big-brother/)

The Department of Homeland Security is seeking bids from contractors to build a network capable of monitoring social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to identify and track potential terrorist activity. (http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/privacy/privacy_pia_ops_publiclyavailablesocialmedia_update.pdf)  They’ll only track publicly available information, but it still makes me want to re-review my Facebook privacy settings.

In October, Verizon changed its privacy policy to detail what information it collects and sells about its broadband users (https://email.vzwshop.com/servlet/website/ResponseForm?OSPECC_9_0_9hg_eLnHs_uhmpJLEy7waUTTFz1uy75zve10bvuzD9vf).  Your internet activity, apps you download, physical location and demographic statistics are being maintained (stripped of your name and other personal identifying information) and sold to advertisers, or anyone willing to pay for it.  While Verizon is the most transparent with their intent, it’s a practice all cell providers likely engage in.

You may think that monitoring and selling information about your online activity isn’t a big deal if it isn’t tracked back to you.  However, while your personal details may be stripped before it’s sold, if it’s maintained in databases that are out of your hands, there’s no saying what may be done with it in the future.

 Andrea Eldridge is CEO of Nerds on Call, which offers on-site computer and home theater set-up and repair. Based in Redding, Calif., it has locations in five states. Contact Eldridge at www.callnerds.com/andrea

 

Editor’s note: for more info on SOPA, PIPA and OPEN legislation please see: http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/17/technology/sopa_explained/index.htm

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Andrea Eldridge

Andrea Eldridge

Andrea Eldridge is CEO and co-founder of Nerds On Call, an on-site computer and laptop repair service company for consumers and businesses. Andrea established the company with her husband, Ryan, from a spare room in their home in Redding, Calif., in March 2004. Andrea is the writer of two weekly columns, Nerd Chick Adventures in The Record Searchlight, and Computer Nerds On Call for the Scripps-Howard News Service. To ask your puzzling tech questions email her at nerdchick@callnerds.com.

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