It seems you can’t get away from email spam, Internet scams and companies using your online purchases and web browsing to badger you with shopping opportunities. Every time you sign up for a blog or make a purchase, you are inundated with unwanted – and sometimes dangerous – intrusions into your personal and private information. We talk to a journalist who has tried to erase her digital footprint, and an attorney who deals with online privacy about the issue. We discuss ways you can get rid of some third parties who spy on your online activities, learn about better password protection, and find out why we are probably never going to be able to rid ourselves of all snooping in the future.
- Julia Angwin, award-winning journalist, author of Dragnet Nation: A quest for privacy, security and freedom in a world of relentless surveillance
- William Kling, adjunct professor of law, IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health
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Marty Peterson: It seems that every time you sign on to your email, you find messages from companies, organizations and even individuals that you don’t remember contacting for any reason. Where does this stuff come from? And how do they get your email address and sometimes know your interests? These are the questions that interested Julia Angwin, award-winning investigative journalist for the independent news organization “Pro-Publica.” Angwin was also on the team of Wall Street Journal reporters that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of corporate corruption. She investigates privacy – or rather the lack of it – in her book, “Dragnet Nation: A quest for privacy, security and freedom in a world of relentless surveillance.” So, who’s watching us?
Julia Angwin: The question really should be isn’t watching us? The government is watching us, the companies that we deal with online are watching us, the companies we don’t know we’re dealing with online are watching us, and then increasingly our neighbors could easily be watching us with Google Glass or flying their own drones.
Peterson: Outside of our neighbors, why would businesses like Google and Facebook want to watch us?
Angwin: Unfortunately, the reason is that they are giving us free services and the only way they can make money is actually by using our data as a lure to get advertisers to pay them. So in some ways we’re going to have to change the model if we really want privacy we’re going to have to pay for some of our technology.
Peterson: Angwin says that businesses – some you’ve never done business with – get your information from other businesses that you do, or from following your searches on the web.
Angwin: Most companies have data about you just as a part of the transaction, right? So Amazon when you buy a book obviously any bookseller would have information about you in that transaction. What’s new is the fact that they use it again after we are done talking to them we’re done with our transaction. It could be used in all sorts of ways. They may follow you around with ads online advertising the thing that you just looked at, or they could sell it to a data broker. So, that’s the problem; it’s not so much…we understand that when we do a transaction we transmit data, but then the fact that it never goes away and keeps following us around is what’s disturbing.
Peterson: Angwin decided to try to erase as much of her digital footprint as possible, and fly “under the radar.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t as successful as she’d hoped.
Angwin: I was probably only about 50 percent successful. I was successful blocking some of the online tracking. There’s good technology available to limit what these advertisers can see as you browse the web. I was able to find a privacy protecting search engine instead of using Google search. But then had challenges with the cell phone. We carry it around with us all the time and we don’t always know what kind of information it’s transmitting. So I wasn’t able to control that as well as I would like. And I also had a hard time getting my data broker files removed. There are hundreds of data brokers out there that have all our information – our names, address, our likes and dislikes, our shopping habits, our income. They don’t have any requirement to let us see the files or remove our information. So of the two hundred or so I identified, less than half would let me opt out.
Peterson: To increase her privacy online, Angwin drew up a battle plan to rid herself of unwanted intrusions.
Angwin: I quit using Google search. I switched to duck duck go, a search engine that doesn’t keep any logs about my history. It doesn’t have any information about me. I unfriended everyone on Facebook. I quit Linked in. I used technology to block online ad tracking, such as Disconnect and Ghostery were the two programs I used. I used programs to encrypt my communications and I worked to opt out of all the companies that I could find that were tracking my location.
Peterson: Why do these companies think that they can use our personal buying habits, email addresses and searches for their own purposes?
William Kling: We all sign these consents electronically that let these companies work with our data and our information. We sign those electronically without even reading them and let the companies have access too much of our data. You can see that through the trails that we leave with our information.
Peterson: That’s William Kling, adjunct professor of law at the IIT Chicago Kent College of Law, and clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health.
Kling: And yet we don’t even think about it when we check the box. Everybody checks those boxes because they need to move forward on whatever it is they are doing. We [unintelligible] expectation of privacy. Once you’ve checked that box, you do not have an expectation that the information you’re providing should be private. In the same way when you’re using a work computer there’s a limited expectation of privacy. When you are using a school computer, school equipment, limited expectation of privacy.
Peterson: These long, densely worded documents can make you dizzy just looking at them. What’s in them, anyway? What do they let the website or app owner do with our information?
Angwin: In almost every case they basically say, “We can do whatever we want with your data [laughter] right? Sometimes they say, “But we won’t do anything bad with it.” But unfortunately, the law is such that the main penalty these days for privacy is if you’re deceptive. So the Federal Trade Commission has brought several privacy cases against Google, Facebook and others when they said they were going to protect your data and then they didn’t. So really the incentive is for companies to say they are not going to protect your data. And so then they won’t have a deception case against them. So ultimately that fine print usually says, we’re going to do whatever we want with your data. We reserve the right to do it and you agree. And then you agree and theoretically you’re not supposed to be mad when your data ends up somewhere you didn’t think it was going to end up. Now, we’re one of the only Western nations that doesn’t have a baseline privacy law that says, you know what, there are some limits on just what you can do with data regardless of the fine print. Obama administration proposed a bill like that in 2012, The Privacy Bill of Rights, but it hasn’t gone anywhere.
Peterson: But shouldn’t those agreements be understandable? Can’t they be written in plain language with little or no legalese? After all, who has time to consult their lawyer when they sign up for a newsletter or download an app online? Kling says that by now in America, we should be used to this kind of document with insurance policies, credit cards and when we buy a home.
Kling: Any time that anybody closes on a house and has to sign the mortgage papers you I’m sure have had the experience where it’s very difficult to know the meaning of everything that you’re signing. So I don’t think that that necessarily is specific and unique to technology. I think it’s a societal issue and that’s why individuals have lawyers attending their closings to help them through some of the questions that they might have. But it’s a very difficult thing to regulate to say that the disclosures have to be in plain language.
Peterson: One of the problems that people face when it comes to personal information security is the sheer number of passwords they need to keep hackers and others off their banking, credit card and other sites. Julia Angwin thought long and hard about the problem and came up with a test to determine if a password was really “private”.
Angwin: I use what I call the mud puddle test, which is, if I were to drop my device in a mud puddle and crack my head or forget my password, could I get my data back? If the answer to that was yes, that meant that the company has a copy of my data. So actually, weirdly I wanted to be in a situation where if I lost the password my data was unaccessible, because that meant I really had the only copy of it. So I used this mud puddle test as a way to evaluate software and services to see whether I was really going to have control of the data.
Peterson: Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks still grab headlines, even years later. Should we be worried that the NSA is casting a wide net in its surveillance of American citizens on the web? Does it bother her that our own agencies are spying on us?
Angwin: I am worried about a government that knows everything about its citizens. Of course they could use that for totally benign and great purposes, but they could also use it for complete and total repression. So what’s important is that we make sure that they are being held in check. And what’s disturbing about the NSA relations that have come out in the past year is that Congress says that they are unaware that NSA was doing this. So my question is, is the oversight there to make sure that they don’t use this information to repress dissent, to put people who disagree with the government into difficult positions? We want to make sure that they don’t do that with this information.
Peterson: William Kling says that spying by the government on various platforms…including telephones … pits our personal privacy issues against national security, and it’s a very difficult balance.
Kling: The events of 9-11 changed our world, changed our country, and once again changed our individual expectations of privacy. While we may grumble about it very few people really are that upset with going through the increased security at airports because they believe that it’s a means to an end. So the events of 9-11 in this country changed our societal expectations. At the same time that has to be balanced with individual freedom and the right to protection. So, it’s a constant balancing act and more and more cases will come before federal judges and of course, more and more laws will be passed at local, regional, state and federal and international to deal with some of these issues.
Peterson: Angwin says that some things are being done to rein in the NSA’s surveillance on Americans and others, but it remains to be seen if it will do any good.
Angwin: They have said that they’re going to try to improve and be more respectful of US citizens and foreign citizens in terms of their surveillance, but truthfully they’re going to do what the law allows them, so we also have to make sure that the laws are not so broad as to let them do anything they want.
Peterson: So are we going to become more laissez-faire when it comes personal online privacy? Is it just a function of living online and having the convenience of the internet at our fingertips?
Kling: I believe that people are becoming more sophisticated in what types of surveillance can be on technology. People are waking up and smelling the coffee, if you will, when it comes to these issues. So I don’t think there’s going to be a laissez-faire attitude. In fact, I think what will end up happening is that as more and more people are impacted, the cries out in the court house through law suits and the cries out to policy makers at the legislative level will increase.
Peterson: You can read up on Julia Angwin’s efforts to maintain her online privacy and learn how anyone can reduce their digital footprint in her book, “Dragnet Nation,” available in stores and online. You can also visit her website – Julia Angwin.com — for tools you can use to get off the grid. To find out more about William Kling and the IIT Chicago Kent College of Law, check out their site at Kent law.edu. To learn more about all of our guests, visit our site at viewpoints online.net. You can follow us on twitter at viewpoints radio. Our show is written and produced by Evan Rook and Pat Reuter. Our executive producer is Reed Pence. Our production director is Sean Waldron. I’m Marty Peterson.