Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Forget Prism and the National Security Agency. The real threat to your privacy is you.

The Irish Times - Wednsday 12th June 2013
It took the rest of us the entire history of the human race to decide our social norms – and Mark Zuckerberg just a few hours to toss them aside

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For all that we harp on publicly about privacy infringements and data mining, the vast majority of us neither know nor care which new frontier in the privacy wars is being breached when we visit a website or download an app, so long as it amuses us for more than three minutes.

So yes, recent revelations that the American National Security Agency (NSA) is mining the internet and phone data of millions of the world’s citizens are a bit of a worry – but not nearly as alarming as the information we willingly surrender about ourselves several times a day.

The reports, in case you missed them, revealed that the NSA has for the past seven years been logging every phone call, email, search history, live chat, video call, upload and download in the US.

President Barack Obama described this as a “modest encroachment on privacy” – and I agree with him. What the NSA is doing may not be reasonable or justified, but compared to some of the stuff most of us willingly and unthinkingly give up in the name of commerce, it’s still pretty small fry.

I use the word “us” advisedly – anyone who thinks this is just an American story probably hasn’t grasped the “global” part of “global intelligence gathering”. If you’ve ever made or received a call to or from someone in the US, or used an American-based server to access the internet, then yes, somewhere in the Utah desert, there’s a data server with your name in it.

But take my advice, and forget about it. Because the real threat to your privacy is you.

When Facebook made controversial changes to its privacy policy in 2009, turning data that had been private into public information overnight, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg gave us a frank insight into how things were going to be from there on in. “We decided that these would be the social norms now,” he said. That’s right: it took the rest of us the entire history of the human race to figure out what norms we would like to impose on our society, and Zuckerberg just a few hours to toss them aside.

That’s the point at which we should have started manning the barricades, or at least deleting our Facebook accounts. But we didn’t. We worried about the idea of a 25-year-old former frat boy with a penchant for fleece setting our social norms for roughly a week, and then we forgot about it.

Since then, Facebook, Google, Apple and the other giants of the online world have been busily redrafting our social norms at regular intervals. In the summer of 2010, an academic article by UC Berkeley about a then-new concept called “geotagging” – software which allows your phone to use its GPS to record your exact location when you publish something online – prompted a rash of news articles highlighting the dangers of oversharing.