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Technology users concerned by privacy violations

Kacey Joslin

May 7, 2019

“Espionage” sounds like a word straight out of a “Jason Bourne” film or a Cold War spy novel, but the act itself isn’t contained to the world of fiction.

The U.S. government has numerous agencies dedicated to the act of national security. The 2001 Patriot Act was enacted after the 9/11 attacks and loosened restrictions on espionage tactics. It allowed, for instance, warrantless wiretapping. The program has stopped at least one Al Qaeda conspiracy by “spying” within our borders, but where do they draw the line?

The National Security Agency has been under fire in the past few years,  after an incident with a particularly brave whistleblower and WikiLeaks, the online database known for leaking classified information. In an era where government surveillance is most certainly possible, it’s become an actual meme to joke about the NSA agents sifting through your internet history or watching you through your computer’s camera. For example: “the NSA agent tapping into my computer as I listen to “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” by ABBA on repeat is probably concerned.”  

But government voyeurs aren’t the only ones with reason to be watching you.

Computer algorithms track your movements and send that data to advertisers, to best customize potential marketing tools. The moment I browsed a page on Amazon for sneakers, I got pop-up ads “recommending” Adidas and Nike-brand snapbacks.  

When you buy a computer, it’s practically a given that you’ll be targeted. You sign an unspoken contract that nothing you do on your personal computer will ever, truly, be “private.”

The internet was not designed with privacy in mind. Social media was created as a public sphere, where people from across the world could have an open, honest conversation in order to identify and solve problems within society. When did that go down the drain?

Google’s motto was originally “don’t be evil” and Facebook’s mission statement was “To give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Both of these slogans have recently been rescinded, and it’s obvious their missions have changed. Facebook’s hacks are growing more and more common while Google is known as the overwhelming “Big Brother” (to quote George Orwell’s “1984”), silently saving data overheard in our ‘smart homes’ and archived in our search history.

The moment you posted that mirror selfie or uploaded your DNA to an ancestry site, a database collected that information. There’s suspicion that certain social media sites build shadow profiles on people who don’t even have accounts. Surveillance cameras are in your college’s university center. Automated license plate readers track your commute.

It doesn’t stop there.

If you have a gmail, reporters from Reuters revealed that your provider has been refusing to answer how many privacy violations have already been committed, which is awfully suspicious.

If you have a bank account, banks are sharing that information with third parties. Usually, this third party is Facebook, which is trying to “become a platform where people buy and sell goods and services,” as according to The Wall Street Journal.

If you use public transport, there have been increasing proposals for facial recognition software to be installed in buses and trains.

If you go to a school, you’re at risk. Check UW-River Falls’ directory, and you’ll likely find, at the very least, your full name and cell phone number listed. No wonder I’ve been getting so many scam calls. If you’re as unsettled by that as I am, you can print out a form to conceal this information from public access, or place a “No Release” on the information.

I don’t have a shiny database with tracking data, but with enough determination, a nobody like me can track a person using only their first and last name.

And here’s the kicker.

You can turn off your phone’s location. You can put a sticky note over your computer’s camera. You can remove all “virtual home assistants,” like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home from your living space. You can delete your social media accounts, use dark web servers like The Onion Router (Tor), and go completely underground. You could toss your computer out a window, smash your cell phone, and go rough it in the woods, but there would still be video footage of you leaving town and unflattering satellite images of your new home in the forest. It’s as though we’re trapped in some twisted dystopia.

We are already screwed.

I’m not trying to be a fear-monger. “Secrecy nihilism” – that is, believing we’re all doomed when it comes to secrecy – is a real thing, but I’m a person who tries to remain positive.

We’ve already passed the point of no return.

If you can accept that, and muscle through your discomfort and paranoia, that’s when we can actually start finding solutions. You can accept the fact that we’re screwed, but don’t ever, ever sit there and decide to do nothing. That’s how we get into situations like “1984.”

It’d be a cop-out if I told you all of the ways you’re screwed over and offer you no solid solutions. But all I can suggest is this. If you want to protect your privacy, get informed, and get angry. There are little things you can do to really stick it to “the man.”

Instead of being paranoid about secrecy, become passionate.

That previously mentioned public transit debacle? There were activists sending out letters and protesting their right to engaged in the First Amendment without being monitored, and as of January, the proposal was banned.

Facebook’s attempt at accessing bank accounts is nebulous at best, with banks “already” pulling out, according to market research. Congress, too, has become increasingly less and less impressed with Mark Zuckerberg’s antics. Fatemeh Khatibloo, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research has been tracking Facebook scandals and privacy breaches. She stated, in an interview with CBS affiliate CNET, that they are constantly finding proof that “[Facebook] never prioritized privacy over their business model.” Eventually, something’s got to give.

Just as it’s possible to restrict your cell phone number from being shown on the school directory, all you have to do is read the fine print.

For in-home virtual assistant systems, keep yourself updated on their updates. If you own an Amazon Firestick, it’s likely that, by default, your privacy settings are set so Amazon can collect your device and app usage data. The update is even pre-installed on new devices. Just turn it off, and file a complaint if it’s upsetting you.

Research how to turn the microphone off on your computer, so the supposed NSA agent in your computer can’t be constantly listening.

You could download a safe and proven effective virtual private network, or VPN, which conceals your identity and would protect your name, address and personal information from being found or released to the public by corporations.

Be choosy with your social media profile. Use strong passwords, not just “1-2-3-4” or “password.” Don’t fall for scams.

The options are endless, and a quick internet search on how to protect your internet (ironic, isn’t it?) will offer you others. While true privacy may seem unattainable, it doesn’t hurt to know your rights. Although Google might track your search history as you search for the list of constitutional amendments, they can’t stop you from it.

As Orwell’s novel, “1984” states, “Big Brother is watching you” – but that doesn’t mean you can’t keep an eye on them in return.

Kacey Joslin is a former student at UW-River Falls.