Privacy? Why you shouldn’t worry about Facebook as much as your grocery store

Much has been made of the privacy failure that is Facebook.  While Facebook, begrudgingly, made a few changes to appease people, they failed to see WHY people were so upset.  Indeed, it seemed that they were puzzled, at first, that people were as upset as they were.  Several tech personalities made very public just how they felt and deleted their accounts.  Fair enough, that is their choice.  However, I have to admit that I tend to side with Facebook on this.  I’m not quite sure why people got so bent out of shape.  We lost our privacy years ago and nothing we do, no amount of complaining and no public displays will ever get it back.  Yes, Facebook could have done more up front to let people know that their accounts were wide open, but, ultimately, it just does not matter.  And, here’s why.

Let’s take a short trip back in time to around 1970.  Now, in 1970, credit cards were just starting come into the mainstream.  Cell phones were non-existent.  Home computers were still a few years off and the public Internet was a few decades away.  Your privacy, in 1970, was pretty good.  You bought your groceries with cash, paid for your gas, most likely, with case.  You probably wrote checks to pay your bills, which you either did in person or mailed via the postal service.  In other words, you had a very small paper trail.  Identity theft was very difficult and practically non-existent.  The credit card company MAY have known what you purchased with your card, but that information was pretty private.

Over the next three decades, however, this all changed.  By the mid-1990’s, the majority of the population of the United States and that of many other nations, used credit cards to pay for most things.  More and more retailers accepted them. You could begin paying your bills and making purchases on the Internet. Home computers and portable computers in the guise of the Smartphone are commonplace. You store contact information, credit card information and other personal data on these devices.  You also have the physical credit card in your purse or wallet. No matter how careful you are, you will, at some point, make a mistake and leave this information vulnerable.  Worse, you, more than likely, freely give out little bits of your privacy:  the toy store asks for your zip code; Radio Shack wants your phone number, address and other information; the grocery store-these are one of the bigger offenders-ask for a multitude of information. In fact, grocery stores probably represent one of the biggest headaches we face. Why?  The CUSTOMER VALUE CARD.  Each may call it something different, but it is a means for the stores to not only target sales to you, but this information COULD be used for other more nefarious purposes.  These value cards tie EVERYTHING you buy to YOU.  Each time you use that card, the store tracks those purchases.  The benefit to you is a slightly lower cost on SOME of the items, the ‘featured’ items.  Problem is that ALL of the items are recorded.  Now, lets suppose that an insurance company makes a deal with the retailer to mine that data.  They could, perhaps, evaluate your purchases and, because you bought beer three visits in a row, determine that you are a greater risk and up your rate.  Maybe your employer is sent that information, sees that you bought the beer, decides you are now a liability, and lets you go.  Paranoid, maybe, but this is a real possibility.

Another trend, and one that can partially track where you go, are the ‘fast pass’ RFI devices that allow you to pay toll without stopping.  Many toll roads are installing these systems and they are very convenient.  Problem, though, is that they also maintain records – out of billing necessity – of the number of times you go through them and the times which you do so.  For now, that’s about all…but…what if these sensors were place elsewhere and record when you pass them, but not take any money from your account.  This could be done to keep tabs on a population.

Did you know that most new vehicles made since 2008 must have wireless tire pressure sensors?  I had no idea myself until recently when a University made public a flaw that allows someone, with the right stuff, to fool the computer in the vehicle into thinking there is a problem.  Not as dangerous as it could be, but there is a potential, once again, to use these signals to track a person.  Systems such as OnStar and Ford Sync could also be bent in the wrong direction.  OnStar like services can remotely control the car from pretty much anywhere.  You know what that means?  They can track that car.

Cell phones, at least recent vintage phones, are readily trackable.  I have always felt that even the old analog phones could be tracked, after all, the cell towers know where you are, and why couldn’t they relay that data elsewhere?

And, consider this: even your entertainment choices are no secret.  You buy your music on the iTunes Store or the Zune Marketplace (OK, maybe not) and you get your movies from Netflix or Blockbuster.  You surf to that naughty bit web site.  You buy an electronic book for your Kindle.  You read the New York Times on line in the morning or play that shoot ‘em up game with others on line.  All of this could be used to build a profile of you, you punk music, violent pervert you.

Now, granted, I’m painting a rather bleak picture and one that is probably unfair to some entities like your local Safeway but the potential is there and my point is that we, as a society, have already handed over our privacy.  I was a bit surprised at just how easy it was to find the phone numbers and addresses of people so I could send some thank you cards out.  All I had, in many cases, was just the name and a vague idea of the city or county. I was able to get correct addresses for about 90% of the people. And that was just a short time and a couple of web sites.  Imagine what could be found if you had the time and patience.   

Our lives are very public.  Worrying about whether Facebook’s privacy settings are fair or not is just an exercise in futility. Unless you pay for everything in cash, don’t have a cell phone or even a land line-because those messages are recorded as well-don’t use the fast pass, don’t have a ‘customer value card’ or use an ATM, your privacy is gone.  About the only privacy you probably have is when you go to the bathroom, and, for some, that’s probably gone too.

Welcome to 1984.

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