“Privacy may then be a commodity that only the wealthy can acquire, but only briefly and in special sanctuaries while taking expensive off-the-grid vacations in locations without surveillance cameras or the tracking devices we call mobile phones.” — Wall Street Journal
According to Bruce Schneier, author, security guru, blogger, and CTO of Co3 Systems, we are living in the golden age of Internet surveillance. This article describes Schneier’s thoughts that while the Internet initially provided a platform for the powerless, governments and big business are now using the power of the Internet to collect unprecedented amounts of data about us.
How has this happened? The last decade has seen a huge drop in the price of storing information, so Silicon Valley, as well as the government, has invested billions of dollars in huge servers that store vast amounts of information about us. Almost everything you do online is being stored in these servers.
“Free” services such as Gmail and Facebook scan our email text, IM posts, private messages to friends, and contact lists for information that is packaged and sold to advertisers. Facebook and Google make billions of dollars a year in mining your data so that advertisers can serve you targeted ads.
Another way companies and the government can track you is by gaining access to your geo-location information on your mobile device. Unbeknownst to most users, many mobile apps have access to this information, which can reveal a lot about you.
Your mobile phone is basically a tracking device which reveals where you go, who you visit, and the shops you frequent. It reveals your interests, hobbies, and how you spend your free time. Other mobile apps have even gotten access to user’s contact lists.
Data Brokers’ Multibillion Dollar Industry
The weekly TV news program 60 Minutes has also reported on the multibillion dollar industry of data brokers. The segment highlighted how much of what you do online is being tracked. Intimate information about you, including your age, religious and political affiliation, medical history, ethnicity, income, and even your sexual preference is being collected by these data brokers and sold to other companies.
While most people are aware that some of their online data is being collected, most have no idea about the breadth of this collection. This is not new information to our readers: I have written extensively about data brokers in a series of posts.
Two of the biggest data brokers are Epsilon and Acxiom. Acxiom has 2,300 servers processing 50 trillion transactions per year. They have information on over 500 million consumers, with a jaw dropping 1,500 data points per consumer. All of this is perfectly legal, and there is almost no oversight of the data broker industry. Which means anyone can collect information about you without your consent, and sell it to whoever wants to pay for it.
In addition to collecting publicly available records, data brokers and advertisers also gather information about your online activities by installing cookies on your computer when you visit websites. These cookies track you as you surf online, recording which websites you visit, what you buy, and what your interests are. They use this information to put together a detailed dossier on you that they can sell to other companies.
As Bryan Kennedy, the CEO of Epsilon put it in the 60 Minutes story, consumers need to understand that the Internet is an advertising medium. And in many cases, you are the product being sold.
How You Can Protect Yourself
Fortunately, there are some things you can do to protect your privacy.
If you don’t want to be tracked by Google, there are other services that you can use, such as DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not track you. You can quit using Facebook, or at least set the highest privacy settings. And if you want to block advertisers from installing cookies on your computer to track you, you can use a free product like Ghostery.
Another great way to keep your personal information from falling into the wrong hands is to install a VPN on all of your devices. A VPN like PRIVATE WiFi encrypts everything: your email, your web browsing history, your IMs, your VOIP, everything. Even if your data is intercepted, your identity is protected, since a VPN masks your IP address.
Where We Go From Here
Some might argue that constant surveillance by companies and the government is the price we pay for our connected lifestyles, or that they don’t have anything to hide anyway. While that might be true, consumers deserve to know what data is being collected on them and to opt out if they don’t want to be tracked.
This golden age of surveillance has made it very easy for governments and companies to track us. As Schneier argues, there is a tradeoff between being connected and privacy. We definitely get something in return by being constantly connected and by default allowing companies to track us. The question we must ask ourselves is whether the price we pay for this connection is too high.