While we may have been preoccupied with political firestorms ignited by President Trump's efforts to curb immigration, repeal and replace the Affordable Healthcare Act ("Obamacare"), repeal the estate tax, build a wall on our border with Mexico, bomb Syria in retaliation for using chemical weapons and posture over North Korea's nuclear capability (or lack thereof), your personal privacy may have been eroded and you likely have not noticed.
On April 4, 2017 PCMag reported:
As expected, President Donald Trump on Monday signed a bill that overturns a Federal Communications Commission rule requiring ISPs to get permission before selling consumer browsing history and other data.
Trump's signature comes after both houses of Congress voted to pass the resolution, which means Internet service providers could have an easier time selling their customers' data.
What does this mean for the average person? If the average person is not someone "connected" by technology, probably it means very little. If, however, you are a person who, in a few common examples:
- a cellphone
- a computer connected to the Internet
- a GPS device in your vehicle
- a cable or WiFi connection for you television or telephone or game system at home, or
- a device that tracks your daily physical activity and workouts,
you probably generate a whole lot of cyber-data every day, whether you realize it or not. Think about the data generated by using such devices to make online purchases or view movies and videos, take pictures, or make appointments or reservations for meals or travel. The list goes on and on.
You think that data is yours, locked inside your device, safe --- something only you can access. Well, you are wrong, at least when you are connected to networks for access to information and products and to share information with others, and particularly when you make commercial transactions.
Bit, by byte, by byte, those activities reveal who you are, what you like, what you do. You do not need to be posting on public service like Facebook or Twitter (although many of us do).
Who cares about all these personal details?
First of all, you probably get a benefit out of creating this cyber-portrait of yourself. Here is a personal example: I buy a lot of things from Amazon: dog food (five dogs, a lot of dog food), books, compact discs, other household items and gifts for others. In addition, I pay for Amazon Prime, so I get free shipping on most purchases and access to free movies through Amazon online.
Amazon keeps track of those purchases. When I want to re-order something like dog food, it is easier to click through a re-order of prior purchase and order it again. Also, Amazon suggests other products that I might want to consider and alerts me of new items related to prior purchases.
Amazon sometimes takes this a bit further. Amazon also sells products from other vendors. Amazon is the broker. So, Amazon is matching up my interest in purchasing something with another retailer who sells it, brokering my information to better serve me. It also helps smaller retailers sell products. I am pretty sure Amazon has smart lawyers and somewhere in the pages and pages of its terms of service, I agreed to let them use my data for these purposes.
What if Amazon could go further and sell all my buying information and habits to anyone who wanted them? The purchasing party could start soliciting my business, trying to sell me whatever they had to offer, whether I was interested or not. (Think about the telephone sales calls or solicitations you get on your land line, if you still have one, or now on your cellphone number.) You may be comfortable with Amazon having your personal profile, but very uncomfortable with anyone being able to buy it.
That, of course, is what Trump's bill overturning the Federal Communications Commission rule does. It lets the companies who have gathered your information sell it to someone else without your consent.
To illustrate the consequences, let's look at another PCMag story that appeared April 24, 2017: Unroll.me Sells Your Anonymized Email Data to Uber. The New York Times ran an article on April 23 profiling Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber and his aggressive tactics to achieve success, including his data raid on competitor Lyft through the email productivity service Unroll.me:
Using its application Unroll.me, "Slice collected its customers' emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and sold the anonymized data to Uber," the report notes. "Uber used the data as a proxy for the health of Lyft's business."
For those who need some translation here, Uber and Lyft compete with each other in provide "ride hailing" services. Unregulated ride hailing services compete with regulated taxi cab services. You use an app on your phone to arrange a ride with Uber or Lyft. A private driver appears at your location and takes you where you want to go.
Unroll.me is an application that scans your email as it comes in and sorts it into categories. The objective is for Unroll.me to separate your "junk" mail so you can discarded and unsubscribe easily. It is email triage designed to clean up your inbox and let you read mail that you really want to receive. In this process, however, Unroll.me sees all your email and analyzes for classification purposes and it knows a great deal about what you have been doing. It can identify receipts for Lyft and Uber, thus knowing if, when and where you are using those services. That Unroll.me anonymize this data is some comfort with respect to personal privacy.
By stealing Lyft's receipts through Unroll.me, Uber could determine how well Lyft was doing in given markets and plan ways to compete against them. Kalanick has made other attempts to obtain data that was protected. As the New York Times reported, Apple CEO Tim Cook once threatened Kalanick with banishment from the Apple App Store for hiding unscrupulous activities from Apple.
Your data is being used already by many websites. I use Google frequently for searches. From those searches it knows my interests. A while ago, I searched for car dealers for servicing my car. I went to websites for these dealers. Now, when I search on Google advertising appears on the pages that I view for the exact brand of car that I own. I wonder how that happened.
The change in the Federal Communications Commission's rule on requiring ISPs have your consent will result in many ISPs selling your information and targeted advertising will increase.
Fortunately, some ISPs sense customer backlash and are pledging not to sell your information. I use a web-based application called Evernote. I use it to take notes of all kinds and to draft these Reality Byte columns before moving them to Word for final edits. Evernote also has a feature called “Evernote Clipper” that allows you to save copies of webpages and links to information you find on the Internet. I use this frequently, not just to clip articles I later want for research, but also for wide range of personal reasons such as saving receipts for online payments (saving the screen acknowledging payment).
Through using these features, Evernote ends up with a very large bank of information (data) on the user. If it looks at what I write, save or clip, it will see recurring patterns of interest and significant information about me. It could package and sell this information to others who could use my data for commercial or other purposes.
I was searching online with Google recently for contact information on a college classmate. Google displayed box indicating that it could search my Evernote account for information on my friend. This seemed useful, but also scary --- that Google could have access to all of my Evernote information. I decided to see what would happen and launched Evernote so that Google could search it. This prompted a somewhat reassuring message before displaying Evernote results on Google:
Evernote does not track your search terms or results, or share any of your information with search engines.
Results did appear from Evernote on Google’s page, but only after I launched Evernote (thus consenting to the search). If the above statement is true, only I can see those results through Google’s search. What is uncertain here is whether Google “harvests” the information it gets each time it searches an Evernote user’s account. (And, in during this search, Google displayed another car ad!)
I hope that the custodians of our data can withstanding the temptations presented by change in the FCC rule. We may want to pay more attention to what we do online, the trail of data that it leaves, and what consent to use and disclosure we have already given through existing terms of service agreements.