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Online privacy

I was surfing the internet a couple of months ago, and came across a website that climbing videos are regularly released through. Rock climbing is a real passion of mine, and I liked the idea of contributing to the social rating system provided by the site, so I decided to register. Almost as an afterthought, I decided to have a look at the site’s privacy policy (how often do you do this?). I was reading through, and was pretty happy with the terms until…

“SKRAM may also collect IP addresses to analyze trends, administer, the Website, track users’ movements, and gather general demographic information.” (Privacy Policy, 2006)

Some alarm bells started ringing. They can monitor which websites I’m looking at? Why would a company that I regard as fairly reputable be involved in what I consider to be a fairly major infringement of my privacy rights. Not that I’m particularly concerned about any of the websites that I visit, but I am concerned about privacy in general.

You’ve probably heard of Facebook’s beacon fiasco where it was revealed that Facebook was tracking the sites that users visited whether or not they were logged into Facebook. After a bit more investigation I’ve found that this type of data-mining is in fact fairly standard practice on the internet.

What about Google? Until recently they were generally considered to be a company of fairly high ethical standards, as illustrated by the “Don’t be evil” philosophy that is one of the founding principles of the company.

However a recent report from Privacy International has rated Google’s privacy practices worst out of over 20 internet service providers (including Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook). Google (and other search engines) log users keep a comprehensive record of users search histories, and are therefore privy to a huge range of information about the preferences of each user. (Tene, 2007)

This type of surveillance is not just confined to the private sector. Laws passed in Germany last year gave the government wide-ranging rights of access to all digital information on the internet. Governmental agents were also allowed to access data on the hard-drives of their citizens. Thankfully, the German Constitutional court overturned this law in February of this year stating that the law

“gave police and state officials too much power to spy on citizens using “trojan horse” software, which can be delivered by e-mail and used to scan the contents of a hard drive” (Moore, 2008)

Most people seem to believe that their online experience is their own private experience, but this clearly not accurate. As demonstrated almost everything you do online is monitored, and logged often by multiple parties.

Privacy in the “real world”

How about offline? Surely what I’m talking about here only relates to transactions that occur via the world wide web?

Another trend which is impacting on privacy is the increasing ease with which we can digitally record what is occurring in the world & share this with others.

I had an interesting experience the other night. I went out and had a dance to the music of Woosh & LTJ Bukem. Thrashed myself until 4 in the morning :-). Anyway at one point I was struck by how on the dancefloor four people were simultaneously taking photos/recording video clips with their phones.

Is recording a gig illegal? I’ve heard of people being prevented from entering a gig because they were carrying a video camera, but obviously you can’t prevent someone from entering a gig because they’re carrying a cellphone.

Now what interest me in relation to what I’m talking about here is that these photos and videos are presumably stored on the Vodafone or Telecom networks. Do Vodafone or Telecom have the rights to access these images, and/or provide them to third-parties? I haven’t been able to find any information on this.

If you think about it, our experiences are increasing being recorded. Satellite technology has improved by a factor of 6-8 in the past 8 years, and is now probably able to record items as small as 10cm across. (Satellite surveillance, 2007)

City councils are increasingly installing surveillance cameras which record the events at key locations in the city. We are also increasingly recording and uploading our lives onto Youtube, Facebook, Flickr, or any number of social networking platforms.

The erosion of privacy is not just limited to the internet.

Now after some consideration I don’t completely see this as a bad thing. It’s just something that’s happening that most people seem to be unconscious of. There are negative elements of the story, but there is a positive side.

Imagine if all of this digital information was not held by private interests, but was instead available to everyone (assuming that we found some way of storing the incredible amount of information). Character recognition software could scan the world’s virtual memory banks to locate and tag all images that contained you. What amazing opportunities for self-reflection this would offer. Have you ever watched a video of yourself doing something? Have you ever had an argument with someone because both of you have a different recollection of a series of events?


Round one goes to the corporates

The Internet is breaking down the control mechanisms of the capitalist economy.

Through free culture, there is now plenty of free music on the internet that individuals are releasing under the creative commons license. About half of the music I listen to now is free. With the emergence of a vast quantity of quality free music, why would anyone want to buy music that wasn’t free? After a period of time, this innovation of free culture will have dramatic impacts on the music industry.

Likewise there are now free versions of the most widely used software packages. Microsoft Office has been the dominant player in the home software market for many years. However in recent years Open Office has become a viable alternative, and now offers most of the functionality that you get with MS Office. And there are other web-based alternatives Google docs & Zoho being two of the most obvious.

With the rapid growth in social networking platforms various companies have been grappling to take marketshare. Facebook has been one of the most obvious in recent years, but Microsoft has also joined the throng with the release of their Windows Live platform which aims to integrate Hotmail with MSN Messenger, and MS Office with Microsoft’s attempt to take out Facebook/Bebo/My Space – Windows Spaces, and the internet safety market with OneCare. Although most of these social networking platforms are free in monetary terms, if you dig a little deeper it becomes clear that in exchange for the service you generally waive a number of your privacy rights. Facebook’s Beacon fiasco was a good demonstration of this.

But there is an alternative even to these companies with sometimes dubious ethics. Blogging and the use of a news-reader gives you access to most of the communication options that you could access through a social networking site, but gives you the option of defining exactly what rights you want to keep and what rights you want to give.

As well as this you have the option of many other free communication options (I personally use Google Groups, Skype, Google docs, Wikieducator, and Flickr regularly). I prefer for most of my material to be released under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC-BY) which means that anyone may use my work as long as I’m recognized for it.

Here’s the kicker…

Understandably, faced with this tremendous future loss of income, the media corporations have started to fight back.

This is a major assault on essential human rights by global corporate interests. Anyone in the US should do anything that you can to oppose this, and anyone else should watch out for it starting to happen in your country.