The Right to Privacy

It’s been a little while since the furore started over the Prism system.  As I write Edward Snowden is a fugitive, having given the world the slip in Moscow.  The discussion over whether he should have chosen to do what he has, or whether he should have chosen another method is one for another place and another time. What I would like to do is revisit a subject I have visited before, that of privacy. Privacy is something we seem to have much less of than we used to. This is an age of social media, ad network and website tracking. Data on our habits and personal information is worth big money to the right people, this is money they seem determined to have. Many of the services we take for granted thrive on this trade, while they don’t hide the fact, in my opinion they don’t make it as plain as they could. A simple principle here is that if you didn’t pay for the service, then you are the product not the customer. When concerned about privacy, you will often find a response stating that if you nothing to hide, why worry? This fallacy casts the privacy advocate in a very negative light and does nothing at all to help the debate. Those with nothing to hide should still be very worried by the erosion of their privacy.

Firstly, everyone has things that they consider none of anyone’s business. There are financial arrangements, family matters, private health concerns. These things are rightly considered private and for a corporation to try to profit from them is the height of bad taste. If a person were facing mental health issues, mounting debt worries or dealing with a sick or dying relative, would anyone honestly consider it right for someone to profiteer from this information?

Secondly, consider the problem of fraud and identity theft. Your personal information, bank account details, online passwords and other such things are very much in demand from online criminals. Would anyone possessed of even a modicum of common sense suggest that you should store these details openly and in plain view?  Of course not, they are kept private and with good reason.

Thirdly, the person asking is often considered to be a representative of the authorities. Now, why wouldn’t you hand over this information to them? Well, they’re just human, far from perfect and information gathered can be misplaced. Consider the very serious lapses of data security that have happened in recent years, like laptops and memory sticks left in taxis, etc.

Fourthly, it’s not just individuals, but companies too. How many companies would give up all their secrets? Suppose we asked a Managing Director to post the company’s customer list on their website along with invoicing details for each customer. What about research details for new products or details of sales leads? How many do you think would agree to publicise any of this?

The truth is that we all have a lot more to worry about than Big Brother. Speaking as someone who works in IT, I will now don my business hat for a minute.  If you resell or scrap an old computer, do you make sure that the hard drive is properly wiped?  You should, because your personal information can still be recovered by a fraudster.  If a PC is sent for repair, then I can guarantee you that there are many PC techs out there who will consider it their right to a copy of your MP3 purchases. All of this should worry you. This is why things like encryption, drive wiping and other security practices should be more widespread.  The concern about electronic privacy isn’t about having something to hide; it’s about basic data hygiene practices, fraud protection and peace of mind.  I’d like to close the post with a few of links that I think are relevant, one of them highly topical.

Prism Break.
Various pieces of software and plugins to help protect your online privacy.

Defensive Computing.
The blog of Michael Horowitz, this is well worth a read.

Gibson Research.
The website of the security researcher Steve Gibson, this has some great tools.

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