A trip down privacy memory lane

by Karl Mamer - Published on 7/15/2011 10:53 AM

The year was 1997. I was working at a tax software company. My coworker Wendy (not her real name) would bring in back issues of Time magazine and place them in the lunch room for coworkers to read. I noticed one day she was carefully removing all the mailing labels from the magazines.

"Why are you doing that?"

"I don't want coworkers to know where I live."

A single woman can't be too careful in this world. I led her over to my computer, fired up my modem (this was 1997!) and brought up a web page called Canada411 (an online white page service). I punched her name into the web page and showed her not only did her name, phone number, and address appear but there was a map straight to her house, complete with driving directions.

Wendy was horrified.

This information had always been available, mind you. You just had to grab a phone book and map of the city. But, you know, you had to get up out of your chair and get a phone book. And then you had to find a map. As the Internet became more pervasive in our lives, it became more obvious to people that others could surf through their lives from the comfort of their desks. The early days of the net were marked by not only a "free for all" attitude but a "security through obscurity" sense. The net was just a big unorganized pile of information not many people had access too. Who is ever going to find what I'm writing about my employer... It was the same kind of mentality that drives individuals in crowds to riot. There's anonymity in large crowds.

Eventually search engines like Lycos, Altavista, and Hotbot started to organize it. It was now really easy to see what others were saying about your business. And it came as a big surprised to many bosses that their own employees were not always saying charitable things. I have another friend who she was turfed from her job as a writer/copy editor for a Seattle newspaper for posting things on her personal blog about her coworkers. They weren't particularly controversial things, stuff she'd say to their face, but people don't necessarily like even clean laundry being aired.

Search engines finding your life history were not the only concern. Browser makers quietly added a cookie feature. Banner ad companies started quietly making use of cookies. Browsers kept histories of sites you visited. And then along came Google which keeps a list of your searches, scans the content of your emails to serve up ads, and more.

Let's not forget about phising, hacking, Trojan horse software, keyloggers, and that nice Nigerian prince with $12 million in a Belgian bank that only I can help him liberate...

In our little history of Internet privacy concerns we've not even reached 2002, the dawn of social networking. Friendster, Facebook's granddaddy, launched in 2002. Interestingly Friendster was predicated on a need for security and privacy. Dating sites were a crap shoot. How do you meet people in a safer environment? Friendster borrowed from social psychology research. Your friends actually have a much better idea of who would be good for you than you actually do. Friends, it turns out, are much better at predicting the success of a relationship than the actual participants in the relationship. So, Friendster created these tight walls around profile information that could only be breached if there was a friend of a friend connection and both agreed to friend each other.

Myspace copied the Friendster model but largely did away with the security. It was successful for a while but loads of bad press made it seem like pretty much anyone under the age of 25 who committed a murder planned it out in the open on Myspace. When Facebook came along with its Friendster-like security model, anyone who wasn't in a garage band migrated to Facebook.

As noted in the last blog post, Facebook started to play with privacy settings and seemed to rely on users to educate each other how to tighten them up. Google+ has emerged on the scene with greater privacy controls, privacy controls that are in your face and force you to sort "friends" into respective circles.

Privacy yes but…

Let's take a step back a moment. Let's step out into the real world. The world where people use cell phones, credit cards, and rent movies. And amazingly we rarely give a second thought. An anecdote to illustrate:

Back in the 1980s Ronald Reagan nominated a judge named Robert Bork for the Supreme Court. He was not the darling of the left and centrists. He was also a strict constitutionalist who believed there were no rights to privacy inherent in the constitution and privacy rights were a matter of legislation. They could be granted or taken away by legislative bodies as they saw fit.

A reporter realized two things a) he knew where Bork rented movies b) there was no law guaranteeing the privacy of his rental records. Har. Har. The reporter got a print out of Bork's rental history at his local video store. The judges tastes leaned heavily towards Disney movies. Nothing scandalous at all. Bork never did get confirmed for the SCOTUS but it wasn't because of his scandalous penchant for Bambi.

Many of us would be horrified to think, say, Microsoft was storing all of our IM chats. But do we ever give much thought if our cell company caches our SMS messages and how long they cache that data for? We don't want an online advertising company tracking us as we surf the net but no one really gives much thought to how a bank might track our movements and build up a pattern of our movements via use of a credit card or ATM card. And of course Apple hit the headlines a few months ago with allegations its iOS tracked users.

There is a weird comfort level disconnect here. What you would not tolerate on the Internet, you don't mind at every point of sale or with every cell call. The recent news of a British tabloid hacking into a murder victim's cell phone message system seems to have generated a great deal of moral indignation (rightly so) but very little talk that most of us protect our messages with a four digit PIN and nothing more. I might not want to sit at my phone and try 10,000 possible PINs but a few desktop computers and modems could work through the permutations easily.

We know the conventional wisdom to have our neighbors collect our mail when we go away on vacation but a lot of us are hooked on location based check-in services like FourSquare and Yelp. We gleefully like to keep everyone on Facebook and Twitter up to date of our movements and when we're not at home guarding our stuff. These things get automatically tweeted out. The search engine Bing combines Twitter with its mapping service and makes it easy to find out who is where and when.

Is this a bad thing?

Is a hammer a bad thing? You can use it to build someone a home or you can use it to clock someone over the head and invade their home. Tools are only as good as the people wielding them and the limits placed on them by their own moral conscience and laws. Using any kind of service, notably ones provided free online, usually come at a cost of giving up some amount of privacy. Everyone has their comfort level. What's important is decide how much of your personal life you're willing to let into the hands of a service provider and the risks of that information being sold or stolen.

User Comments
re: A trip down privacy memory lane
1/11/2017 2:35 PM by 1
re: A trip down privacy memory lane
1/11/2017 2:35 PM by 1
re: A trip down privacy memory lane
1/11/2017 2:35 PM by 1