You have to work pretty hard to make something private these days

By on March 15th, 2013 in Ethics, Privacy & Security, Social Implications of Technology

Oh Google, I love a lot of your products and services, but this was pretty stupid. If you hadn’t heard of this before, basically Google Street View cars were scanning open wireless networks and scraping them for any information they could get. Google apologized and paid a big fine, but correctly note that what they did wasn’t actually illegal in any way.
I’ve thought for a long time that obscurity was actually a pretty good privacy protection – for years my home wifi didn’t have a password because I was set quite far back from the main road and it made it so much easier when guests came over. I finally added a password a few years ago, but in general I’m not one of the privacy paranoid. Efforts like this however, and the fact that they are not, nor is it likely that they ever will be, are changing that. My personal information is valuable. And these days there are more an more companies like Google that have the resources to gather that information en mass.
We are less and less obscure every year.
Some of this is totally out of our hands. The ever-falling cost of processing power and better and better data crunching algorithms mean that it’s feasible to find and store a lot of information about, literally, everyone. But, a lot of this we give away ourselves – without even realizing it. Anyone who sends un-encrypted data over open wi-fi in the eyes of the law has zero expectation of privacy – but I bet that’s not what those users thought. In the U.S., the courts have held that law enforcement can trace you via your smartphone without a warrant. Since your phone is constantly broadcasting a GPS signal, the logic goes, it’s akin to using a dog to trace your scent. But I seriously doubt many people know this.
Some of this, of course, will be fixed by time. Technology is a disrupter, and we are all, collectively, constantly learning how to use it. Criminals are figuring out they have to switch off their cell phones. People like me have added passwords to their home wifi networks. At some point maybe Harvard deans will realize their work email isn’t private and figure out how to use Tor – then we’ll know the future has arrived!