Technology Trumps Privacy

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness... So begins A Tale of Two Cities, written by Charles Dickens and first published in the mid-nineteenth century. Dickens was writing about the not-so-jolly old England and, particularly, revolutionary France in the late 1700s, but I think that he was prescient, because those words also aptly describe our increasingly digital lives.

Technologies enhance human existence in ways that would not be remotely possible without them. We now take them so much for granted that we often don't recognize how astonishing the benefits are. What's more, technologies keep prices for the things that we enjoy much lower than they otherwise would be by enabling greater productivity. But we get these benefits only at a cost, even if it is often a hidden, non-monetary cost.

What is it that's bugging me this week (other than the usual overwhelming feelings of guilt, fear, and self-doubt that normally fill my days)? I'm thinking of hiring a skywriter to paint my personal information overhead. That would do a much better job of protecting my privacy than what seems to be happening in the world today. Consider just three news items, all reported in February 2005:

  • The Bank of America lost computer tapes containing the credit card data of more than one million U.S. government employees, including senators.
  • A data collection company, ChoicePoint, sent personal and financial data on more than 100,000 people to fraud artists posing as legitimate businesses.
  • A hacker broke into T-Mobile's systems, obtained Paris Hilton's electronic address book, and posted it on the Web.

Those are just a few of the stories that became public in a single month. Who knows what else is going on? Haven't these companies ever heard about locks and keys, digital or otherwise?

There are, no doubt, some who will say, "Oh, that's not surprising. It's just corporations. All they're interested in is profit, not privacy." Just as an aside, because of the responses that I've received to past tirades, I agonized over whether to include the previous sentences. Some people have accused me of being... (Dare I say it in mixed company? Send young children out of the room before you read this.) ...a liberal. Just for the record, I don't have any qualms about profits per se. On the contrary, I own my own business and, as long as it's done honestly, I would be quite proud if my company earned what some on the far left might call "unconscionable profits." Now that I've likely unleashed a flood of angry forum postings from both ends of the political spectrum, let's continue.

The point I want to make is that it's not just business that's careless with our private data. Governments are supposed to protect our interests, right? Surely, they take care to guard our privacy. Think again. The U.S. Treasury Department recently audited data security at the IRS. Posing as help desk staff, the impostors asked 100 IRS employees for their network login IDs. The IRS employees were also asked to temporarily change their password to one suggested by the fake help desk people. Thirty-five of the IRS employees complied, thereby handing the imposters complete access to any online data available to the IRS employees.

I don't mean to pick on the U.S. tax people. That just happens to be the article that I saw. I suspect that if other countries conducted the same sort of audit, the results would be similar, if not worse. I'm Canadian. We're known for politeness, so you may arouse suspicion if you don't say "please" when you ask Canada Revenue Agency employees for their system logon information, but other than that little bit of added security, I don't have much confidence that our tax people would be any more reliable.

Technology just keeps on providing new ways to invade our privacy. What goes on in businesses and government is bad enough, but now some personal technologies are getting into the act. Many health clubs don't allow cell phones with cameras in their change rooms because somewhat less than ideal human beings are using them to take nude snaps that end up on the Internet or in some pervert's personal collection.

I recently saw that you can now buy binoculars with a built-in digital camera. They're being sold to bird-watchers and sports fans so they can take snaps while they zoom in on the action, but you know that once these gadgets are out there, that's not going to be their only use. It's just one more reason for a painfully shy paranoiac like me to keep my curtains permanently closed. Then again, I would be doing humanity a service by leaving them open since one glimpse of me naked would quickly cure any voyeur of his or her fetish.

Even some technologies that have become commonplace are causing problems. I recently read about a new activity that has been called "Google hacking." It is much simpler than the word "hacking" implies. It just means using Google or another search engine to locate personal data that has been carelessly left exposed on the Internet. Apparently, if you enter a person's name and "SSN" (for Social Security Number) into a search engine, you will often come up successful. The article where I read about this also said that another technique is to include "filetype:xls" in the search. That will find just Excel spreadsheets, which is a popular medium for data lists on the Web.

Of course, some people don't deserve any sympathy when it comes to a loss of privacy. You probably read about the guy who made a video of himself self lip-syncing and flailing around (I think he called it dancing) to a Romanian pop song. He posted it on the Web--he thought just for friends, but why he wanted even his friends to see it is beyond me--but he was embarrassed when millions of people started to take notice. Here's the thing: There's a reason why they call it the World Wide Web. If there's something that you don't want the world to see, don't post it there. I would have thought that was obvious, but apparently I was wrong.

Joel Klebanoff is a consultant, a writer, and president of Klebanoff Associates, Inc., a Toronto, Canada-based marketing communications firm. Joel has 25 years experience working in IT, first as a programmer/analyst and then as a marketer. He holds a Bachelor of Science in computer science and an MBA, both from the University of Toronto. Contact Joel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. He is a very private person. Please don't mention that to anyone.