Friday, May 07, 2010

Locational privacy becomes a growing problem in the age of social media, but not just because of social media

The discussion of privacy and security continues in the media, inasmuch as many people, of all ages up through baby boomer, gradually surrender more privacy, especially “locational privacy”, in a modern world.

While some media outlets have pointed out how online use can compromise home security recently, others have been showing that ordinary activity in public now leaves an electronic trail that a determined adversary might be able to tap. This audit trail includes transit system swipes, traffic speed and red light cameras, toll turnstiles (which offer the added problem of making it difficult for out-of-towners to get in the right lane for cash sometimes), and street cameras, common in convenience and retail stores, but even more so in public spaces in many areas (especially now in Britain). Andrew J. Blumberg and Peter Eckersly wrote an article for Electronic Frontier Foundation in Aug. 2009 “on locational privacy, and how to avoid losing it forever,” here.

There are other problems of locational privacy even from the physical world. Just plain “dumpster diving” can, in rare cases, divulge home locations and compromise home security or identity security.

I think there is a more subtle problem than the obvious one (already covered) of people giving out unnecessary personal or home-related information on social networking sites, a practice suddenly getting noticed by insurance companies after a (very) few recent spectacular crimes around the country. One size does not fit all shoes, inasmuch as families vary so much as to circumstances and as to how well secured their homes are. What also seems to be of concern is that anyone can become a “celebrity” and attract potential “enemies” with no particular competitive process or investment of capital, compared to how it was in the past. But it’s also true, if almost “everyone” is one the Web (especially social media), it takes more than merely going online to attract the wrong kind of attention. (If everyone is famous, then no one is famous.) Therefore, the nature of someone’s published content (whether on social media, blogs or conventional sites or other media like books and movies) still will set someone off as able to attract attention, sometimes unwanted in a world where many people see the whole system as essentially “unfair” or ethically meaningless. So, still, it’s a good idea to use “land address” mail boxes or, even better, “private registration” of domain names, permitted by ICANN, when registering personal domains.

One problem is the practice of data brokerage companies that sell reports on unlisted phone numbers and addresses. Likewise, many municipalities publish names and addresses publicly in real estate tax records online. I never use these services and will not out of curiosity, but I, like many people, certainly know how to use them.

The Center for Democracy and Technology has an important but brief missive, “Over-sharing and Location Awareness” from Feb. 24, 2010, here.

Back in May 2005 Rep. Jim Moran (D, 8th District, VA) had written to me about this matter, and his comments bear repeating here: “As you know, some Internet businesses, such as, are selling information about people for a minimal fee. This information includes current and past addresses, telephone numbers, police and court records, subscriptions, and other public documents. These businesses are not warehouses of information, but rather search engines that consolidate information from existing public records and sources for a fee.

Like you, I have reservations about these businesses. They operate on the fringe of what may be legally permissible and verge on privacy invasion. I am also concerned that these firms could facilitate domestic violence or stalking where certain information should remain confidential. Without infringing on First Amendment rights to assemble and sell what is already public information. Congress should look into ways for people to opt out of such listings and investigate whether certain types of data should not be disclosed. I will continue to look into this issue.”

Congress needs to pay more attention to the activities of these companies.

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