Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Internet: Making the World More Open, Even If You Don’t Want It to Be

On May 13th, Europe’s highest court ruled that search engines can be ordered to remove links from search results.  The event followed a complaint by a Spanish man regarding articles about his real estate transactions on Google.  The online newspaper refused to take the articles down, so the Spanish Data Protection Agency went to Google to take the links down, thus keeping the content but removing how most users access it, through search engines.  Google predictably appealed it, leading to the court debate and subsequent ruling.

Online privacy is a murky topic.  At first, people are either oblivious or apathetic, disregarding terms of services and laws until they experience the consequences firsthand.  With the Internet being a giant cache of data, there is bound to be information on each person.  Here are possible sources of leaks:

Public Records

The government at all levels publishes records online by law that in most cases cannot be removed.  They range from criminal offenses to real estate sales, like that of which caused the European Google ruling.  The records are mainly used for employment background checks, though could be abused by identity thieves.

Data Breaches

Data is only as secure as the database that stores it.  Consumers expect companies to keep their transactions safe, but more often than not there are vulnerabilities for hackers to exploit.

In December of 2013, retailing company Target announced that 40 million of customer credit and debit card numbers were stolen.  In the following month they added that the names, mailing addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers of up to 70 million people were stolen as well.  Hoping to alleviate customer relations, they offered a meager 10 percent discount for the weekend of December 21st to 22nd, but the damage was done – Target’s profit that quarter dropped by 40 percent.

Earlier this week on May 21st, popular auctioning site eBay notified the public the login information and “non-financial data” of its 128 million users had been compromised by a cyber-attack.

At some point, the corporations become the villains, not the hackers.  After all, it is the business’ responsibility to serve their customers.  In fact, it can be argued that the hackers are the good guys, alerting everyone to flaws in the system and preventing later disasters of even bigger scale.  In most  cases, the company has weak security implementations, and not that the hackers developed revolutionary malware.  Target had already installed $1.6 million anti-malware system FireEye, made by the same company that services the Pentagon and the CIA.  The software actually caught the first hacking attempts, but Target had turned off the automatic malware removal feature, leaving the threats untouched.

As is the case with public records, the average citizen cannot prevent data breaches from revealing their personal information.  They can only be careful regarding who they give their business to and immediately change their passwords and credit cards whenever a breach occurs.

Social Networks

Some information is willfully posted by the users themselves.  The crux of Facebook is online real-life identity.  In other words, people feed websites their own information, which is the most accurate.  Most people have the notion that their profile is safe from strangers.  The default privacy settings make profiles viewable by the public, even if they do not have a Facebook account.  The good news is that the privacy settings can be adjusted to stricter levels, to the point that non-Facebook friends cannot see your information and unregistered visitors cannot even access the profile page.  This provides more peace of mind for wary users, but unfortunately it is not the default setting.  Youth who have no concept of privacy are probably unaware that the settings even exist, making them especially vulnerable online.

So the privacy settings take care of strangers on Facebook.  But keep in mind, a Facebook friend does not mean a friend in real life.  It could be a mutual accomplice or classmate that is barely known.  As long as they are Facebook friends, they can view the users’ profile in its entirety.  The problem is intensified that Facebook has become a place for users to show how great their lives appear, and not actually are.  This is done by posting every little detail and event, from what breed of dog they like to lunch dates.  All this is made possible by users themselves, into the eyes of people they barely or do not know in any way.  Possible solutions are to delete existing posts, private message the intended audience, communicate in person, and never release online in the first place.

It seems that most of the top websites nowadays such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have real-life features.  Also true for the more mature and professional business-oriented social network LinkedIn, although it makes sense that users’ resumes can be viewed by strangers who may end up becoming their employers.

However, some social networks have remained popular in spite of, or perhaps because of the lack of real-life association.  A notable example is Reddit, a social news site where users submit posts which can be text, a picture, or a link to an external website.  The unique feature is that other users can “upvote” or “downvote,” and the top posts are displayed closer to the first page.  Freshness also plays a factor, and users can comment on the posts.  And most importantly, Reddit does not allow the posting of personal information.  Even having the names still visible in a Facebook picture will get the user banned.  They give the heartwarming reason that it could hurt people.  You can read the whole rule here (only a paragraph!).

Since websites that require identity are ubiquitous and generally unavoidable these days, the best advice is to be careful what information you submit, and be careful who you connect with.  Or, you could simply go on sites like Reddit (warning: anonymity also increases unsavoriness) and forget about the burdens of privacy.

Conclusion

The Internet is going nowhere soon, but privacy is.  Between public records, data breaches, and social networks, there are countless ways for your data to leak online.  The exponential increase in both technology and population means there will be more users than ever.  Storage capacity and computer science are also on the rise, making it easier to collect and store data.  The modern adage “what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet” is true, especially the longer it is there, since the data can be copied and uploaded onto another site anonymously.  The Internet can be a dangerous place.  You wouldn’t shout out your personal information in real life – why do it on the Internet?

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