The Ongoing Online Privacy War

I love keeping my eyes open for changing trends in behavior, especially online behavior.

The battle to maintain one’s privacy in a world of socially mediated publicness is a topic well picked over. Both celebrities and folks of less renown have all had a digital mishap, whether it’s the mistaken click on “Reply all” or the R-rated photo that ends up in the wrong hands.

The message of “the internet is forever” is probably as firmly embedded in the consciousness of folks young and old, just like “look both ways before you cross the street.” Not that people always heed the good advice they hear.

Into the breach have stepped several apps and services designed to anonymize your activity online. Wickr, Snapchat and the Silent Circle products are just a few examples of companies trying to help you keep your private life private.

 Wickr offers “military-grade encryption of text, picture, audio and video messages.” Yikes!

Snapchat is a photo-only service (for now) that allows you to put a time limit on how long the picture will display on the recipient’s device, up to 10 seconds. I gather this one is popular with the younger crowd.

The Silent Circle family of products were created by a “mix of world-renowned cryptographers, Silicon Valley software engineers…and former US Navy SEALs and British Special Air Service security experts.” They even offer a feature called “Burn Notice.” Too much time watching USA Network?

All kidding aside, it appears that the time is right for options like these, for various reasons. While no one is FORCING you to post a status update on Facebook or check in on Foursquare, none of us ever feel totally confident that what we try to keep private actually remains that way. Our website visits are tracked by advertisers or your ISP, our emails and texts logged, phone conversations recorded. There is no digital equivalent to the Mafia movie scenes where the  two guys walk outside amid traffic noise, and far from wiretaps, to have a private conversation.

Nowadays, closing the door to your office has no digital equivalent.

All of us have had that slightly queasy feeling that everything we do might someday be a part of the public record. I’m not positive that even these three services can successfully wipe the digital slate clean. It seems to me that communications sent from your phone, across a network to someone else’s device must be stored SOMEWHERE. Do your research.

Too often the argument for more privacy online (or off)  is attacked with the tired argument of “well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t be worried.” That is so stupid on its face I won’t comment further. Smart people do dumb things, to be sure, but there are few justifications for the level of invasiveness granted to corporations, public utilities, your employer, etc. And there are times when you might like to talk to someone about something, and not have the whole world potentially know about it.

This is not some unhinged Libertarian rant against Big Brother, but I wonder if we are not seeing some push back in an area that all of us have probably felt some prior discomfort.

Plus, getting to play “Mission: Impossible” with your phone could be kind of fun. “This text will self-destruct in five seconds…”

What do you think? Do you think these kind of apps are responding to a real need? Would you sign up for one of them? Post a comment.

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Can you protect your kids online?

The concept of regulation, especially when modified by the word “government,” often produces a knee jerk reaction among many who feel that if the government is involved, things can only end badly.

About this time last year, I wrote about the well-meaning but impossibly overmatched Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) passed in 1998, at a time when the internet did not even bear a passing resemblance to today’s internet.  [Click here to read that post.] The focus of that post was largely about parents and other authority figures encouraging kids to lie to get around Terms of Service agreements. Today, the FTC is attempting to strengthen COPPA in  a futile attempt to deal with data mining and behavioral targeting.

Naturally, this effort to redress the shortcomings of a law passed in the internet Stone Age is being met with opposition. I think it’s always useful to examine exactly WHO is against any kind of regulatory change as a good first step towards parsing whether that change is good or bad.

In this case, the charges of “get government off my back” are coming from the likes of Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and twitter, not to mention television networks, app platforms and advertising trade groups.

I am not making any earth-shattering observation when I say that kids, especially pre-teens and teenagers, do not spend a lot of time thinking about the long-term consequences of online behavior. (Heck, neither do a lot of adults.) An innocent upload of a picture so they can see themselves on their computer screen next to a Disney character or battling robots inside of an app seems, to them, like no big deal.

Businesses survive by cultivating new customers, and with kids flocking to the internet in droves, they go to where the prospects are. I’m not convinced that any regulation, no matter how well-intentioned, can stanch the flow of data mining and behavioral targeting. The internet did not kill privacy, as fashionable as it is sometimes to take that position.

The only real alternative is to discuss internet safety and internet smarts with your kids. Many parents feel ill-equipped to do so because they themselves feel like they are unaware of how best to act online. The fact is, being online is not that much different than being out in the world, and you should govern yourself accordingly. It is neither reasonable nor feasible to opt out of the internet, just like you cannot opt our of society in general. A little common sense will always carry the day.

And keep an eye on who is for and who is against some of these things. That ought to scare you more than the possibility of your kid being served an advertisement for chocolate covered Doritos.

What do you think? Can anything really be done to protect kids from being marketed to and having their data collected? Leave a comment in the comments section.

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