How we're losing our privacy online
From personal photos circulated inadvertently on Facebook to ‘Web bugs’ that monitor our buying habits, the Internet is exposing the private us to the public more than any technology in history. Here’s why you should care – and how to avoid it.
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“Over and over again, our eagerness to exchange privacy for connection is abused – by law enforcement, by teachers and admissions officers and coaches, by employers, and by faceless corporations,” writes Hal Niedzviecki in “The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors.”Skip to next paragraph
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PRIVACY, OF COURSE, IS something that humans have been losing since the first cave dwellers drew depictions of each other on stone walls. Modern technologies have further narrowed the parameters of discreetness: Remember those rotary phones with the party lines and the nosy neighbor who would listen in?
Then there is the camera, the telephoto lens, and the cellphone with a camera. Everyone seems to be watching: In the name of catching criminals, governments now monitor our movements with surveillance cameras mounted on street corners. Employers can read our e-mail. When we go through an electronic toll with our E-Zpass, a record of our movements exists that might one day be used in a divorce case.
The Internet, in fact, has the potential to expose more of our private information to the public than any technology in history. Part of this is just the nature of the medium. While much knowledge about you has always been publicly available, it was much harder to find in the dusty back room of a library or government archive, or in letters stuffed away in a desk drawer. Today much of this information can be found anywhere in the world at the click of a mouse.
Despite all the talk today about teens who put embarrassing pictures or other highly personal information online, most people aren’t abandoning their desires for privacy. Mostly, they’re making what they think are conscious trade-offs – exchanging information about themselves in discreet amounts and for specific reasons, such as to join a website or conduct a business transaction.
But, more troubling, they’re giving away information about themselves without realizing just how much is being collected and shared. People disclose far more than they know – information that can be gathered here and there like so many bread crumbs that together provide a feast of data.
Take Joel Reidenberg and his class at Fordham Law School in New York. Each year, Professor Reidenberg gives his students an assignment to show how public our lives are in the Digital Age. He has them find out everything they can about a person. The only stipulation: The information has to be available free of charge, online.
This year’s subject was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who has said that the Constitution provides little right to privacy, including online.
What might the students have checked? Databases for municipal and county governments, which increasingly put their record keeping online; tax and voter registration information; mortgage details, including how much someone owes a lender. In some counties, the actual layout of each person’s house is available online. Google offers street views and satellite imagery of homes. Alumni newsletters from a college contain a host of personal information.
News stories in local newspapers are another rich source, as are published birth and death notices. Wedding announcements are a great way to learn maiden names, which lead to a lode of new information.
In short order, the class worked up an impressive 15-page dossier on the justice (which Reidenberg says will not be made public), including his home address, home phone number, his wife’s e-mail address, the movies he liked – even his favorite foods.