Say Goodbye to Privacy, Citizens of the World!
The world in the year 1984 was scary place. Apple released its first Macintosh computer, the deadly disease, AIDS, was identified, there was widespread famine in Ethiopia, and there was even a deadly shooting in a California McDonald’s. Wait a Minute. That’s not the 1984 I meant to talk about. I intended to speak to George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian world where citizens are constantly under surveillance. Everything they say and do is recorded by the government. One of the events that actually happened in 1984 doesn’t fit with the others and I think you can tell which it is. The Macintosh computer, today, is coincidentally helping push society closer and closer Orwell’s 1984, where there are people that we’ve never met before that know everything about us. Now I know you’re thinking that what I’m suggesting is absolutely preposterous. The world we live in could never end up like that, right? Wrong! We actually aren’t headed towards that world; we’re already living in it.
Now that I’ve successfully scared the hell out of you, let me explain. In our world, the government isn’t the only reason for this lack of privacy like it is in Orwell’s dystopia. It is one of the main groups that are creating this world, but that’s a topic for another day. We’re going to focus on the industrial groups. In industry, the people that are ruining our chances at privacy can be broken up into two groups: data brokers and the very manufacturers you and I buy products from.
Starting with the less obvious of the two, data brokers are companies that essentially follow people around the internet and collect information based on the websites that each person visits. On March 9th, 2014, 60 minutes aired a special exposing data brokers which gave people a sense of what exactly is going on. According to the special, “they are collecting, analyzing and packaging some of our most sensitive personal information and selling it as a commodity...to each other, to advertisers, even the government, often without our direct knowledge”. What they are collecting about you, me and millions of others is, at least to me, very concerning. This information includes, “…our likes and dislikes, our closest friends, our bad habits, even (our) daily movements, both on and offline.” The method data brokers use to essentially sit on a website and wait for their prey is by exploiting your internet browser. In the 60 minutes piece, correspondent Steve Kroft spoke with former google engineer Ashkan Soltani who developed a software program called Disconnect. Soltani went on to any particular website and turned on his program which he designed to show who was lurking in the shadows of the websites on the internet. Soltani went onto the New York Times website and revealed the more than a dozen third parties sitting on the website, waiting for him to click on a link or move onto another website.
So why are they doing this? Like everything in today’s world, they’re doing this in the name of money, and very large quantity of it at that. Eventually, once data brokers have collected a sufficient amount of information about you, they create a profile with your name attached with all kinds of information attached to it. They then turn it into a profit by selling it to someone else, and that can be other brokers, companies looking to sell you a product based on your interests or even the government, as mentioned in the special.
A lot has been made recently about the internet of things. The internet of things is the term coined that encompasses the recent influx of common household devices that are becoming connected to the internet. Everything from the thermostat in your home to the toothbrush in your bathroom is becoming connected. The technology research company, Gartner, says the internet of things, “will result in 1.9 trillion in global economic value add through sales into diverse end markets.” The reason this is relevant in the discussion of privacy is because, according to technology journalist John Paul Titlow, the same companies like Verizon that are collecting personal data about their customers are the same companies that are leading the smart device “wave”. These companies, who already have access to a large collection of personal data, will now begin to add to that collection and make it more expansive than ever. Just imagine this. Your smart thermostat will tell manufacturers how efficiently you use energy. Your smart coffee maker will tell manufacturers how at risk you are for the adverse effects of caffeine. Even your toothbrush will have the capabilities to tell companies how effectively you brush your teeth. Maybe this doesn’t scare you. Okay fine, they know all this stuff, who cares? Would you care if it was costing you? Insurance companies are always looking to make money. They raise prices and deny claims wherever possible. So let’s say the dental insurance company A goes to Oral B to buy information about their customers using their new internet connected Smart Series toothbrush. They see that these 200 customers aren’t brushing their teeth very well, making them susceptible to a multitude of oral problems. The insurance company sees these customers as probable costs to the company so they raise the premium for those unlucky 200.
This example wasn’t concocted in my naïve brain, but rather by Dr. Sven Dietrich’s. Dr. Dietrich is a Stevens Institute of Technology professor that researches computer and network security, anonymity, cryptographic protocols and cryptography. I spent about 40 minutes with Dr. Dietrich and the overwhelming sense I got about him was that he was incredibly concerned about this issue that not many have even thought about. At one point, he pulled out his laptop and said, “how do I know I’m not being watched?” He then pointed to the camera on his MacBook that had a small plastic cover over it just in case someone was interested in accessing his camera to spy on him. His views on our privacy were incredibly pessimistic as well, saying things like, “we’re doing it to ourselves,” and “the users enslave themselves to providers.” He blames the people simply because we don’t put the time in to do the necessary research on the privacy and security policies for the smart devices we purchase. In response to whether this kind of data collection will end, he asked why would it stop? In a society driven by the dollar, in an industry where is no regulation, why would companies not try to make as much money as possible? Companies have the tendency to exploit something they make money off of until they’ve literally squeezed every drop of it. So one would have to think that companies are going to try to work their way into every aspect of our lives and collect as much information as possible.
So what do you think? Is 2014 starting to sound like 1984 yet?