Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Top 5 Threats To Your Privacy

The prevailing attitude is that if you don't have anything to hide, then you shouldn't be worried about your privacy. Of course if you ask anyone who preaches this philosophy to post their last few tax returns on Facebook, the story might change a little bit. The truth is we all have something to hide. Maybe it's not illegal, and maybe it's not even immoral, but most of us have details of our lives that we wouldn't feel comfortable with the entire world seeing.

1. The Government

The NSA drinks from the well of pretty much the entire world's Internet traffic. With little or no oversight they are free to do what they want with your information as long as they say "because terrorism!" first. Revelations have come to light about the NSA not only using information it collects about you for purposes of national security, but to secretly share with other government agencies and even corporations which use this information for profit.

New revelations are coming out of the Snowden leaks virtually every day, and it's all bad for your privacy. Ok, it's not all bad. We now know that technology like VPNs and the Tor network are actually capable of giving us a modicum of privacy. By looking at the leaks of what is giving the government trouble in taking away our privacy, we can infer which technologies work the best to protect it.

2. Hollywood

Hollywood has long seen Internet as the enemy and everyone on the Internet as either thieves or potential thieves. While not a direct threat to your privacy, they are an indirect to everyone's privacy because they work so hard to undermine it. They spend millions lobbying for laws that erode your privacy and even your civil liberties in a vain attempt to turn the clock back 30 years.

The purpose of (thankfully) failed laws and agreements such as SOPA, ACTA and CISPA were to take away your rights and consumer protections in the name of profit. Hollywood lobbyists have reportedly admitted that they have infinite patience and will eventually slip one of these types of draconian laws through while the public is napping.

3. Corporations

Unlike Hollywood with its disdain for technology, most corporations exploit technology to its fullest potential in order to maximize profit. Your privacy is a simple formula to them: the less privacy you have, the better these corporations can sell you things. It almost doesn't even sound bad.

The problem lies with the fact that a great deal of time and money is spent gathering your personal information, but not much if anything is spent on protecting it. On the contrary, corporations routinely sell your personal information as well as volunteering it to various government agencies. What's worse, these corporations have virtually no liability or accountability for what they do with your information, because they were given retroactive immunity.

There are very few large companies fighting for your privacy. And because all corporations are for profit, the ones that protect your privacy only do so because it is in their own financial interests.

4. Employers

It used to be that other than being some kind of criminal, your personal life off the clock was none of your employer's business. You have no such protections these days. Of course your employer can't officially discriminate against you for a chronic medical condition or dressing up as a donkey on Thursday nights and singing karaoke at the corner bar.

When I bought my first house, they made me sign a non-discrimination disclosure. The lady doing the signing made a joke of it and said something like "sign here saying you're not being discriminated against, though if you were, ironically you wouldn't be here signing this disclosure."

And there lies the problem with your employer or potential employer knowing every intimate detail of your life. Chances are, if you are discriminated against, you won't even know it.

5. Hackers and Identity Thieves

Why is Hackers at number 5? Because you are more likely to lose your privacy to the top 4. But that doesn't mean that hackers and identity thieves aren't a threat. It's just these days, most people are more savvy than they were, and they're wary of scams. The Nigerian Prince who just sent you an email will pretty much always find a target somewhere, but the Internet isn't as gullible as it used to be. Thank you for that Russia and Nigeria.

But hackers are getting more sophisticated as the arms race against them escalates. The one thing we as consumers have going for us is that the same banks who minimize our privacy in order to squeeze every last penny out of us is our unlikely ally against hackers. The bank could very well be on the hook for a hacker's shopping spree on your stolen credit card. The bank doesn't give a crap about you, but it really, really likes money, so it does whatever it can to keep you safe. By trying to keep your money safe, it's keeping its own money safe.

It is for this reason that I put hackers as the lower risk to your privacy. You as a consumer have a rare overlap of interest with the powerful players who normally work to screw you. Also, the threat is a bit overstated because there are billions of dollars in profit with a vested interest in keeping you scared of hackers, viruses and malware.


This article is meant to focus more on the problems protecting our privacy than the solutions, which I intend to get into depth with in future articles. The short answer is that we're pretty much screwed as far as our privacy goes, but with some discipline, tools and good practices, we can take back some of the privacy we all have unknowingly relinquished.

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