You Are Being Watched

A few weeks ago, I discovered that my RF Modulator had given up the ghost. That’s the little box that connects both a DVD player and the antenna to a TV. Seems that the little power indicator LED doesn’t come on anymore. That should give you some idea of how little TV I watch that I have no clue how long it’s been out. At work the next day, I went online to get some prices on a replacement.

Even though that was just a few minutes of searching, and it was several weeks ago, I am still seeing banner ads offering me deals on RF Modulators.

Last year, you may recall, there was a great deal of hubbub about how the NSA was spying on people by collecting phone and e-mail records. There were many cries for reform, at least until the next crisis came along (I forget which one it was). Now admittedly, it’s kind of creepy to know that the Federal Government is collecting and storing immense amount of data about our communications. But there is some official oversight (even if it’s not that effective), and we can understand – even if we don’t agree with – the need for that “spying”.

What about private businesses? How are they collecting our personal information, and what information are they collecting? We have no idea. They are responsible only to their shareholders. “Don’t Be Evil” may be a nice corporate motto, but can we really trust them?

I don’t mind letting a supermarket track my purchases through my discount card. I agreed to that arrangement, since I get a good deal out of it, and I knew what was going on right up front. But what about the tracking that we *don’t* know, and cannot therefore agree to?

There are applications that will show you who is looking over your shoulder when you go surfing the Internet, but most people don’t know they are available. Or how to opt out of such tracking. Nor do people realize that their very location can be tracked if they have a GPS receiver in the smartphone that they are carrying. And don’t forget that drones are becoming cheaper and therefore more prevalent… Even more creepy, retailers are using facial recognition software in their security cameras. Not to identify criminals as they enter the premises, but to do a quick Internet search to find an ID for the face and then call or text the person’s phone to give them a personalized special offer. I’m not much of a Luddite, but that intrusiveness is something that goes over the line.

A few days ago, I was reading a blog when I spotted, over on the side where one would expect a banner ad to be, the cover image of a new book that I had just taken out from the library the night before. Turned out it wasn’t an ad, but rather a “What I’m reading now” thing. But for a minute there, I panicked. How the hell did some random website that I’d never visited before know what I was taking out from my local library? Given the rate at which we are surrendering our privacy, I would not be surprised if such things were soon possible.

If you voluntarily send personal information out there, via Facebook or FourSquare or the like, you have pretty much given up a reasonable expectation of privacy. (The Government thanks you, by the way. It’s become delightfully easy to nab petty criminals when they brag about their accomplishments online.) But if you don’t want to be bothered by strangers, if you prefer to keep your comings and goings out of the eyes of the corporate world, you shouldn’t have to ask them to leave you alone. That should be the default setting.

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