NOVEMBER 2013
Khaas Baat : A Publication for Indian Americans in Florida
Techno Corner

HOW WE LOSE PERSONAL PRIVACY FOR ONLINE CONVENIENCE

By ARUN MARBALLI

There’s no such thing as a free lunch! That’s because there is always an expectation of something to be gained in return. This is true in everything (well, almost everything) that we experience in life. It is an equally valid concept in the cyber world. Every service that we assume to be available for free – from Web searches to map lookups – comes at a price, albeit, often not an easily recognizable one. Many of the tools that we use while online – from Facebook, Foursquare, Google and Twitter (to name a few) – store data about what we do while we use their tools and then allow these companies to mine the data thus stored, for profit. This is no different from what grocery chains do with the data they collect from our Point of Sale transactions, especially, when we use that store loyalty card for picking up reward points and discounts. For that matter, credit card companies not only collect our transaction data but can actually merge that with our credit-handling data to create a buyers’ profile for each one of us. This data is invariably used for profit in direct marketing and in sales pitches made to us much akin to the targeted advertisements that we experience while surfing the Internet.

As the many online service providers collude to enable their offerings to share information in the interest of providing us services with a seamless experience, they will use the opportunity to gather and strip-mine our information. For instance, using Facebook as the portal for accessing all our online services practically gift-wraps and rewards information regarding all our online experiences including all the services we consume, to Facebook which then graciously mines it for its own benefit. Further, we do not have the ability to grant any permission for the use of our information nor do we have the opportunity to revoke such permission.

There is a school of thought out there that believes in the notion that the main reason all these companies can use their offerings to collect our information and then turn around and sell the data to any one that is willing to pay for it, is that many product vendors covet such information to market their products and we, as consumers, do not have a mechanism to control access to our own consumption data in order to thwart the information harvesters from selling what is truly not theirs to sell. They further posit that, if such a mechanism was put in place, then the consumer could choose to release his information to who he wants to share it with and for how long – for a reasonable compensation.

In the absence of such a mechanism, however, we do not have a silver bullet for ensuring our personal privacy, and we cannot control the distribution and use of our private information. In fact, the companies that are enjoying this treasure trove of private personal information do not want any of these controls to be put in place and desire complete unfettered access to use of the data for any purpose that generates the most money for them. Further, their useful services – electronic and mobile payments, travel reservations, cloud media storage, health and other records management tasks, communications services and the numerous social media services have practically enticed many of us to completely ignore the real price we are paying, in lost personal privacy, for the instant gratification of online convenience.

It is not all doom and gloom, however – there is good news. There is at least one company that is doing something about this. Apple is, perhaps, the most advanced in this arena. The current Operating System of Apple devices already requires any apps that attempt to track our location (GPS) to obtain our permission before proceeding – and we can refuse to give this permission, in which case the Operating System will prevent the app from accessing the GPS location of the device. In fact we can access our device settings to revoke permissions for any service at any time. In the upcoming operating system update (in Fall 2012), Apple is expanding the privacy control to include our Contacts List, Twitter Account and Facebook Account as well.

Why is Apple doing this? It is doing so mainly because it has a vested interest in keeping our information safe. After all Apple has an extremely loyal customer base –few defect to a rival – in fact, most customers are hooked on their products as soon as they start using them – and it is in the best interest of Apple to protect those customers. Google, on the other hand has an almost predatory focus on data mining – primarily because that is how it makes money – and it keeps adding new services that entice us with their convenience and deliverables. With the introduction of the Google Now service, Google seeks to build a very detailed profile of all its users – what they do, what they buy and where they go – a worrisome prospect indeed!

The one player that could make a difference in this privacy debate is Microsoft. Hitherto, it has taken the approach of enforcing minimal controls while allowing users to make the call in connection with managing their own privacy settings – whether an app can/cannot have access to your GPS location, your name and your picture (for instance). Since Microsoft is not into the data-mining business, it could, like Apple, choose to lean towards stricter privacy and access controls. If Microsoft was to take the same approach as Apple for enforcing privacy controls, we would have two major computing platforms that represent a majority of the computing user base, dictating the direction in which the user privacy controls debate goes. Microsoft has an opportunity to incorporate this into its Windows 8 operating system which is due to come out in fall this year. If Microsoft could do this, it would certainly be a win-win situation for the consumer.

Finally, in a wider context here is an excerpt relating to the nation’s cyber security from President Obama’s speech – "The American people deserve to know that companies running our critical infrastructure meet basic, common sense cybersecurity standards, just as they already meet other security requirements. Nuclear power plants must have fences and defenses to thwart a terrorist attack. Water treatment plants must test their water regularly for contaminants. Airplanes must have secure cockpit doors. We all understand the need for these kinds of physical security measures. It would be the height of irresponsibility to leave a digital backdoor wide open to our cyber adversaries."

Well spoken, Mr. President!

Arun Marballi has worked in the Information Technology arena for more than 22 years with extensive experience in software development, process design and network/workstation management. For comments, questions, tips or suggestions, e-mail amarballi@hotmail.com.

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