9.1.1 Privacy and Surveillance

The same tools that give us such incredible freedom to create and share are also a cause for caution. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation says, “New technologies are radically advancing our freedoms, but they are also enabling unparalleled invasions of privacy.”

It’s possible to invite some of the invasions, of course, even in routine use of the Web. If you sign up for mobile phone social networks that broadcast your location to friends and others who use the same services, you’re giving up some privacy. If you post on Facebook, you’re being public. As we’ll discuss later in this chapter, we all need to think about how other people—including people we don’t imagine to be following us—could make use of the information we radiate.

Beyond the information we release willingly is a cornucopia of information released about us by others. A GPS-enabled mobile phone tells the mobile network company and anyone with access to the carrier’s data where you are and where you’ve been. And when you shop online, or even just browse, you are providing data that’s the rough equivalent of having someone follow you around a shopping mall with a video camera, recording and storing everything you buy or even look at.

Americans know (because journalists have ferreted out the story) that their government created a vast and illegal surveillance system that was used to monitor American communications for years during the Bush administration. For all we know, that monitoring is still happening; the Obama government claims essentially all of the same rights as its predecessor to do what it pleases, never mind the Constitution.

That’s bad enough, but the companies that provide digital technology and network services have unparalleled abilities to watch your every move as well. And many cyber-criminals floating around those networks (working remotely from places like Russia, in many cases) have the technical sophistication to play malevolent games with your communications, including financial ones.

There are laws supposedly protecting privacy, or at least misuse of data. The problem is that they’re rarely enforced, and the penalties for violating them are not much of a deterrent.

Just as you need to put much sturdier locks on your door in a bad neighborhood, you need to take steps to preserve (what’s left of) your privacy online. One of the most important measures is actually the simplest: Keep your software up to date, applying the bug fixes and security “patches” companies provide. Another is to use Web browser plug-ins such as the NoScript add-on for the Mozilla Firefox browser, which lets you block many of the kinds of drive-by attacks you can encounter in your routine Web browsing.

As you increase your mediactivity from the routine, it’s honorable to give users of your blog or website as much privacy as possible, including protecting their data from being extracted and used by a hacker. Just as you need to keep the software you run on your own computer current, you should be as certain as you can be that your Web-hosting provider is doing the same on its own systems.

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