Commentary

Your Data Was Never Yours

Did you really think it was? Did you really think the government could access none of it, that the miracle of an effectively free Internet was just a gift from the universe? Did you really think the companies that make their money by selling our body parts -- eyeballs, mostly -- could never be compelled, as telecommunications companies and banks can be compelled, to hand over that data to the government?

Did you think that sharing anything with your 300 closest friends left that thing imbued with even the smallest shred of privacy?

Did you think the companies that spill your data like oil, that share it like candy, that hack your WiFi and follow you around could be trusted to protect you?

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Did you think their systems are so magical that, even if they did in fact have the world’s most benign intentions, they could never suffer a breach? Did you think the system originally born from the government would somehow morph into being off-limits to its father?

None of this makes it OK. It is not OK for the government to indiscriminately spy on us. It is not OK to avoid due process, and it is not OK for private corporations to track us without our consent.

It is not OK -- but it happens, all the time. And yet we continue to be surprised when it happens, stunned at the magnitude of the revelations. We continue, Homer Simpson-style, to put our hand back on that hot stove and then whip it off again: “Doh!”

Do you think Google or Faceook usage has gone down since the Prism scandal came out? Out of the more than 171 million people who visited Google.com in May, how many of them might be so dismayed by the idea of being watched that they will change their search habits? I’ve used Google seven times so far just in writing this article. And even if you did change search engines, which one is better? Which one keeps you “safe”?

The bounty of our digital age is a feast for anyone who would access our data. Corporations. Governments. Criminals. Terrorists. If we put it online, we make it instantly vulnerable.

So here is the rule: if you don’t want the world to see it, if you don’t want it splashed across the front cover of The New York Times and The Guardian, if you don’t want people to know the intimate details of that oh-so-personal side of you, don’t publish it. If you want to be truly anonymous, don’t use computers that are connected to the Internet.

It is wrong for governments to break the law, and I can only hope that anyone responsible for doing so gets held to account. But it is also wrong to assume it won’t happen. Put enough of your digital valuables on display, and some hungry magpie will come along and peck at them.

The only way to fully avoid the magpie is to avoid creating and displaying such valuable items in the first place.

But will you? How many times have you used Google today?

13 comments about "Your Data Was Never Yours ".
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  1. Darrin Searancke from Halifax Chronicle Herald, June 14, 2013 at 10:34 a.m.

    "Doh!" - this is great! Privacy Smivacy - you present some great questions, Kaila. You may want to switch Magpie for Crow for the North American audience, however. #kiwi

  2. Ruth Barrett from EarthSayers.tv, June 14, 2013 at 10:38 a.m.

    Connected to the Internet or not, your digital valuables are on display through your employer, banker, doctor, lawyer and candlestick maker. Leaves only one thing to do in my opinion, each of us has to hold our officials and representatives in both public and private sector accountable and NOT leave it up to someone else. Collectively we need to invest in those organizations who are acting as our watch dogs.
    As Kaila reminds us, "It is not OK for the government to indiscriminately spy on us. It is not OK to avoid due process, and it is not OK for private corporations to track us without our consent." For example, Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Reddit and others have launched an effort called StopWatching.us to fight government surveillance.

  3. Joshua Chasin from comScore, June 14, 2013 at 10:39 a.m.

    Yes. What she said.

  4. Stephen C. Baldwin from Steve Baldwin Associates, June 14, 2013 at 10:45 a.m.

    I've never seen Silicon Alley so afraid and exposed. This is much worse than the AOL data leak of a few years back -- the last time that people actually thought about privacy. You're right, Kaila -- we need to be individually responsible for cleaning up the traces that follow us around. It's not that hard to use a search engine that doesn't track us, eliminate 3rd party cookies, and otherwise make it harder -- not impossible -- for "magpies" to peck at us. But maybe we need to make it even easier -- if there were a $399 laptop billed as "the securetop," loaded with a stack of SW immune from routine spying, you could sell a ton of them right now.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 14, 2013 at 10:54 a.m.

    You are so elegant and eloquent when you write. Everything you said is true and more. There is no escape. Face recognition and emotional recognition will only add to the depth of this problem and how we have handily handed our lives to powers of control that will never relinquish it. We are well passed the indignation of the government having access to our information. All the feet stamping in the world will not stop it. Better to use all of that energy to protect it and limit its use. The commercial aspects have no controls.

  6. Darrin Searancke from Halifax Chronicle Herald, June 14, 2013 at 11:09 a.m.

    I take that back, a work associate has shown me there are Magpies in North America. They must have their Facebook profiles hidden.

  7. Rick Monihan from None, June 14, 2013 at 11:42 a.m.

    Kaila, there are several, very different, but somewhat interrelated issues here. First - regarding the NSA - if anyone was surprised, they just weren't paying attention. But now that we have your attention, let's get to the point of the matter. It's not about privacy, and it's not about being surprised. It's about seizure of property and unwarranted search without probable cause and being angry that this was taking place. As a result, there are questions that have to be asked about the Consitutional nature of this data collection (seizure), even if it's not being searched (and it is).
    Secondly, when it comes to privacy, we don't have a right to privacy in any meaningful sense. Most laws which exist regarding privacy are really wrapped around issues of property. There certainly is no Constitutional right to privacy, primarily because everybody has different levels of sensitivity regarding how much they are willing to share, so we all have different definitions of what privacy really is (hence the Constitution focusing more on illegal search and seizure). But one thing that most people will agree on is that if they voluntarily put something 'out there' - such as this comment by me - then it's a basically an acknowledgement that this is not a private communication. On the other hand, if my personal email is being reviewed by a hacker, that is akin to somebody opening my mail, which is a Federal Offense (even if people consider emails less secure, the comparison is accurate....anyone can steam open and read a letter if they choose to).
    Third, just because you assume something can't happen doesn't mean that when it does happen you should slough it off as "well, it was likely to happen, given the circumstances". If it's wrong, it's wrong, no matter how easy you made it for someone to do the wrong thing. There's all the difference in the world between "you can do this" and "you SHOULD do this" and even more difference with "doing this is ILLEGAL and UNCONSTITUTIONAL". Finally, and on a somewhat related note, many people I know have complained that Snowden broke his NDA. Yes, that's a problem. But let's put some perspective in breaking this. The NDA isn't designed to make him accomplice to a crime simply because he isn't supposed to speak up. In fact, if a crime is being committed, it's his obligation to speak up. On the other hand, the politicians and bureaucrats who knew about this and swore an oath to uphold the Constitution? Why isn't anyone questioning the oath they broke? Ultimately, to me, the question isn't "Why are you surprised this stuff is going on?" It's "Why haven't you been paying attention and why don't you care more?"

  8. Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance, June 14, 2013 at 12:30 p.m.

    This article comes down to blaming the victim. If you don't want to get raped, don't do anything that might draw the attention of rapists. The author may think that's sensible; personally I'd rather fix the law.

  9. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, June 14, 2013 at 5:13 p.m.

    Wow, such great comments! OK... @Darrin, that's what happens when you live overseas for too long! You forget what's here and what's there. @Stephen, the problem with your argument -- and my own -- is that it's totally unfair to expect the consumer to be responsible for a technical solution to privacy. How many of us have gotten this kind of phone call from our moms: "So I typed it in and nothing happened. And now it all disappeared. I think I deleted all my emails. Where did I save the picture?" There are millions and millions of people like this; people who will NEVER deploy a system to avoid cookies or 3rd-party tracking. What do we do for them? And @Rick, what an excellent commentary! So interesting! For the record, I fully support what Snowden did. And one of the many challenges and complexities of our transition to a digital world is the re-examination of what constitutes "property." We feel an inherent and visceral difference between a public comment on a blog and an email. But what about a comment on Facebook? At what point does our "property" cease to become "property" that can be seized?

  10. Marla Goldstein from Around The Bend Media, June 14, 2013 at 5:25 p.m.

    Kaila, I was totally with you until you brought up the point that the government's spying on us was wrong because they're 'breaking the law'. It isn't. Congress has repeatedly authorized what the NSA is doing in collecting phone numbers, locations from which those calls are made, etc. As I see it, the problem is two-fold. One, that people have any reasonable expectation of privacy when they live their lives online. There isn't. Two (and most importantly), the US government has contracted out the national security of the United States to a private contractor. To me, THAT is the true scandal here. Who are these private contractors accountable to, really? Their shareholders? Who?

  11. Rodney Mayers from Google, June 17, 2013 at 12:06 p.m.

    The grand irony is that the government is asking the digital advertising industry to guarantee data privacy with opt in/opt out/opt anything for life's sake but meh, we're the government, we do what we want. Taking a step back, I want more information on exactly what they were collecting. Would people feel better if they were collecting meta data looking for connections to known "bad actors". If there was a bad event and we found out the government knew something but did nothing, is that okay? I'm not justifying the government's actions, I'm simply asking for details on what they were pulling.

    If you have to monitor all traffic at the packet level in order to filter for messages heading to countries like ye olde axis of evil - Syria, Iran, N. Korea, those blokes - and in isolating that traffic, you could thwart more terrorist attacks quietly versus all out war is that unacceptable. Google reads more of your email than the government but wait, they don't "read it", it's just the machines right?

    It's a slippery slope. Give an inch, the government will take a mile. Give up nothing, then what? As a generation, we live life publicly - Path, Twitter, FB, Instagram, Flickr, Tumblr. This issue has obliterated the discussion on Benghazi, the IRS, attempts to squelch the free press. All in, a pattern is emerging that when taken singularly, seems isolated, when taken together, suggests a change in the US that people wanted to believe in.

    Assume all of our comments are being tracked. Does that also squelch free speech?

  12. Rick Monihan from None, June 17, 2013 at 12:17 p.m.

    @Marla - I suppose if the Congress said it's OK to shut down churches and newspapers, that would be fine? Just because Congress 'authorized' anything doesn't mean it's unconstitutional. As I pointed out, this isn't about privacy at all. In fact, the very mention of privacy in this discussion raises my hackles because it's so shortsighted and misguided as a discussion point. And it certainly isn't about contracting out anything to a private company. Good Lord! If you are so concerned about privacy and private companies (I'm not) then stay off the internet, stay off your cell phone, and don't use EZ Pass or credit cards. Even with all that, I defy you to remain completely anonymous. Privacy isn't the issue. It's property. @Kaila - the reality is most of examination of what property is on the internet HAS been done. An email communication between you and me is private, not unlike a standard piece of mail. Someone else hacking it will face criminal charges, and the government still needs subpoenas to get that information (well, apparently not really - that's a mere formality now as Snowden points out). The problem is a chicken-and-egg dilemma. What came first? Probable cause or metadata? Can we comb metadata to find probable cause, or do you need probable cause to comb metadata? And if you argue that a terrorist threat is probable cause - then all of us are at risk for a complete removal of every single right we currently have. "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."~Benjamin Franklin. Our property is ALWAYS property that can't be seized, except if there is a warrant AND probable cause. Simple. Prove that every citizen represents a threat, because that's what they are saying by combing all this data. No, I disagree with this policy no matter what Congress (seriously - we trust politicians in this country? When did we become so naive?) says or authorizes. As Glenn Greenwald wrote: "We should know almost everything they do, that's why they are called public servants. They should know almost nothing about what we do. That's why we're called private citizens." It really is not that difficult or twisted to figure out. But we do have some people who are so afraid of the government, they'll just roll over and hope beyond hope that their best interests are being served by the government, when history seems to indicate this is a rare feat. The cost of liberty is eternal vigilance.

  13. Rick Monihan from None, June 17, 2013 at 12:28 p.m.

    Revision:

    Just because Congress 'authorized' anything doesn't mean it's NOT unconstitutional.

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