By Steven Chan
For those aggravated by a changing world, here’s something to add to your frustration.
There are places on the World Wide Web where people can remain in contact with friends and families, share their near-perfect lives, keep up-to-date on the news, as well as exchange photos and videos. Some folks have become online ambassadors and are making a living due to a long list of followers; many have branded themselves and have gone on to become “Internet celebrities” (an odd form of validation).
This phenomenon is known as social media and is powered by a variety of applications and search engines, most of which you are familiar: YouTube, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, Tumblr, Flickr, LinkedIn, and Meetup—just to name a few.
Compounding the attraction to these sticky locations and media news feeds is an invitation for visitors to sign up for their “apps,” a means for cutting down the time to reach the intended site and obtain volumes of information of any subjects you wish for free—or so they would have you believe.
Recently, software engineers working for the biggest of the three social media giants have claimed that (often unknowingly) every adult or child who has logged on to a computer has given away their personal information which is captured, stored, and warehoused, until such time a buyer is found for mining the data.
Worse is that an individual’s location, emotional state, images, finances, and just about everything they do, think, or say is processed, reviewed, and monitored by computer voyeurs, only to be accessible FOREVER.
It used to be that marketers wanted demographic and consumer profiles that might result in some direct mail or a phone call at dinner. But as technology busted out, traditional data gathering wasn’t enough. With algorithms and artificial intelligence gaining traction, companies are creating vast wealth—not by selling ads (as they would have you believe), but by trading in psychographic, medical, intellectual, and behavioral content from search data obtained by those willing to give this information away. Some storage banks even retain your visual identity (photographs) to match with other information they collect so that they have a complete and in-depth profile of everyone who “logs on.”
The result is that these companies have amassed a digital profile on practically everyone on the planet that is of interest to a third party for financial gain.
Some brush off the theft of personal privacy for what they believe is free access to roam, search, and surf. As for others, pain, fear, and even death have caught up to them because of their naiveté regarding the inherent danger of sharing personal information with those having undisclosed motives.
Any search online leads to a sphere of news sources all reporting that the founding fathers and mothers of the digital world have always known that their products could endanger the end users or have severe repercussions if used excessively. They continued to find methods to keep unsuspecting users attached to their sites for hours on end, seven days per week. In fact, some have compared it to addiction and feel that these websites or media traps should be regulated before the harm becomes irreversible.
From fake news on Facebook to children urging their peers to commit suicide on other sites, there appears to be an epidemic—if not a public health concern—resulting from the unregulated development of data gathering and the lack of understanding of how excessive digital access affects human behavior.
In 2010, Steve Jobs admitted that his kids had not used the newly-released iPad, and an associate, Jonathan Ive, also said that he had imposed stringent limits on the amount of time his boys spend with devices.
Then, only weeks ago, in a story published by the New York Post, an employee who had worked at Facebook since 2007 admitted that the company “[had] created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.” He went on to add that his children do not have their profiles online and he feels guilty about the “impact” Facebook has on the world.
Lack of choice
While some companies attempt to inform consumers of their privacy rights, often requiring a visitor to go through a lengthy and legal document—taking a law degree to decipher—many don’t. And, once you visit a site, you are fundamentally agreeing to allow that business to gather all your data, in addition to following you via your electronic device. All this access in exchange for their “free service,” which isn’t clear or indicated up front.
Given the fact that on any day, the average person may surf 10, 20, maybe 100 sites, every time they move to a new location, their personal information is updated and secured for future reference.
Tracking of the population is a very threatening concept—yet it is done, and for the most part, the public thinks nothing of someone, somewhere, knowing their every move.
Though there isn’t much that can be done to avert those who are determined to create a file on their users, there may be some help available to limit or slow down the process. You can shut off your phone, use the “do not track” feature, and even wrap it in aluminum foil if you believe it will help stop the intrusion into your life. There is also something new and available to thwart those who steal your identity and information.
Meet VPN, short for the virtual private network.
This service is something to consider if you prefer to keep as much of your private life—private. VPN software encrypts the connection from your location to outside servers, found far from where you may be. Simply explained, you connect to them, they link to the sites you wish to visit, and your IP address is hidden. But there is more.
These multiple location server sites (some companies having as many as 500) are designed as a tunnel which allows your data to flow back and forth to external sources while preventing bad actors from penetrating the wall and retrieving your information.
According to PC Magazine, while a user is connected to one of the various VPN services, all your “network traffic passes through the protected tunnel,” and is impervious to anyone attempting to violate the connection. Most importantly, the ISP you are using is unable to view information exchanged until it leaves the tunnel for the public Internet.
As with any new tool, there is always a means around the protection. Although this is a reliable security product, it can be breached, and so a word of caution. If a professional hacker wants into your system, they will probably achieve that goal. Users must be attentive and not download any unknown attachment, ransomware, survey, or visit the Dark Web. Also, giving up information to a site pretending to request personal data legitimately can work around systems created for protection.
In essence, a VPN will prevent the “interception” of traffic, especially when using public WiFi networks. It will hide a computer’s IP address and set up roadblocks for those attempting to track movement or location.
The level of protection a VPN offers is debatable, but many throughout the globe are using it for either personal or professional protection. Some are avoiding their work or research from being discovered by competitors, while others are avoiding government monitoring and censorship.
For some, this may be an elementary lesson plan that doesn’t rise to the level of concern. As for others, it is a wake-up call that personal privacy is being chipped away. Preferring to be anonymous and not allow companies to profit from data collected remains to be an individual’s right.
Personal protection begins with information, and now you have some. Know that with advances made with recognition technology and the collection of human data (DNA profiles, face recognition, and fingerprints) it won’t be long before you are listed as a number and location—prime for whatever use is necessary by your government or someone willing to pay for that data file.
Editors note: Reuters (February 12) reported that Facebook was found guilty by a German court for the use of personal data because they lacked the consent of their users. Germany has been observant over how tech companies gather data for “micro-targeting online advertising.” The report stated that “Facebook’s default settings and some of its terms of service were in breach of consumer law, and that the court had found parts of the consent to data usage to be invalid. Facebook hides default settings that are not privacy-friendly in its privacy center and does not provide sufficient information about it when users register.”
Full disclosure: This publication, while it collects data for access to its digital magazine, does not sell, exchange, or provide any personal data from its subscribers to third parties. We do save and protect email addresses for subscribers’ use, but they are never released or disclosed.