When “Private” Ceases to Exist

Data Collection, Data Profiling and Issues

With the advent of the 21st century, connected devices are becoming the norm. Each hacking incident draws eyeballs on the security of the device and/or the services we use. Google, Facebook, Apple and most other companies are collecting data about us for targeted marketing and advertising, ways to seek new business and revenue. Some of them employ explicit opt out policies of sharing our data which can get missed in our day to day usage of the service. For example, WhatsApp updated it’s terms of service which shares your data automatically with Facebook unless you opt out in 30 days. The notes also say this only disables using your data for advertising but it will be collected for fighting spam etc.

This brings me to another point, a lot of times the data that you share can be interpreted in many different ways like this 2013 post shows about what Facebook could do then. I can tell you as a software engineer that 3 years is significant time to improve a product. It doesn’t end here with Facebook because a couple of months back there was a Chrome Extension developed by ProPublica that allows you to see what data you share with Facebook. An article on independent.co.uk goes into a bit of depth to tell you how Facebook collects data too. This recent article tells you what Google knows about you.

There are claims of companies that have built profiles of people and interestingly, I also found this article written in 2010 citing concerns over data profiling. Couple this with issues of data auctioning on the dark web like that of Yahoo’s hacked data or NSA spying on users like the reports on Yahoo and iCloud and I might not even be scratching the surface here.

Tor and Issues

People suggest using Tor for online browsing to maintain anonymity. While Tor really seems like a fabulous option let us set a few things straight –

  • Tor is not really anonymous.
  • Just installing Tor won’t make your browsing anonymous either, you cannot access Flash videos or allow Javascripts to run because they could be used to collect your personal data.
  • Remember the last time your favorite website didn’t load under 5 seconds and you got frustrated? That can be your daily browsing experience because you pay the price for security with performance.
  • You are still being watched but only this time by government agencies and not corporations.

Still not convinced? You should read some Tor FAQ’s such as these

The Alter Ego Approach

I had another radical idea for anonymity, creation of an alter ego, but it came crashing too. The goal is to be able to keep your identity and your interests private. You can create a fake name, fake date of birth, fake gmail ID and can still browse the web. You can shop with your new alter ego on Amazon but it crumbles at this point because you’re going to have to provide your real name and address for Amazon to be able to deliver your product. Or if you enable 2 factor authentication, now you need a cell phone number. Your number can be backtracked to you using services like TrueCaller. It is also quite possible that Google is maintaining it’s own private number service? After all we’ve all synced our Android phones to Google Contacts, haven’t we?

Bottomline

If you are still trying to find a way to secure your identity and data let me tell you this straight – it’s immaterial, your privacy has long gone. Let nobody fool you into believing it still exists. That said, there is still hope. Last year Apple made it to the headlines for not decrypting the phone of a terrorist for the FBI.

What Next?

I think we must change the definition of privacy for the internet. One thing still in our hands is what we search on Google or post on Facebook. There is a reason why these companies exist because the value add they offer are sufficiently large. Imagine the time when your internet connection went off as you were trying to navigate to a place you’d never been to before. So what if they have a profile of me, my likes and dislikes and beliefs and everything, they can only use that information against me if I am not a law abiding citizen.

As far as targeted marketing is concerned, I perceive it a bit differently. Imagine you are walking on a street and that everyone around you knows you inside out. You are now being followed by a string of salesmen who are trying to get your attention to have you buy something they have to sell. If you were to put on your headphones and play some music or admire a beautiful gentleman/lady in front you, would you still be disturbed?

Addendum

Edit on 5 Jan 2017 — I suddenly realized something that I had overlooked. I was reading this article and it took me back to 1984 by George Orwell. Orwell predicted a communist society where the government knew what you were doing, you could trust nobody, each person spied on the other, information was filtered and deceptive, media houses were fake and the common masses were made to believe of the propaganda that the government was working towards the greater good.

Now I’m reconsidering this and will need to think through to predict what the future holds for us.

Please recommend this article if you like it. If you have thoughts or comments, I’d be happy to hear them.

Disclaimer: All views expressed by the author are personal and does not reflect that of any other organization or his employer.

Edit: An earlier version of the article mentioned did not call out that the opt out setting was open only for 30 days since you accepted the terms of service.

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