Privacy – Blown to Bits

By R. E. Barksdale

The Internet as we know it today, is the Great Purveyor of the digital rivers and streams that connects web users. The Internet is like a bazaar that gives billions of people access to the trails of data that we leave behind, and each user or merchant has their own thoughts on how this data can be exploited. In their book, “Blown to Bits,” authors Hal Abelseon, Ken Ledeen and Harry Lewis, describe how “bits,” our digital DNA, are scattered around the globe in various digital databases and how the distribution of this information threatens our privacy, security and freedom.

This distribution of the Internet Traveler’s “bits” along the digital tributaries makes it available to many to use as they wish.  One analogy the authors use explains the threat of altering information in its original form by describing the creation of salt.  “What we know about salt – that the component elements, sodium and chlorine, are both toxic, but the compound itself is safe.  Here we have toxic compounds arising from the clever combination of harmless components.” (Abelseon, Ledeen and Lewis 2008, p. 48)[1] In other words, they seem to be saying that as beneficial as new technology appears to be, it is prudent to consider the ramifications of its use before adopting them.

For example, Japan was importing considerable amounts of their energy – nearly 80% – and this caused them to begin looking for alternatives.  Nuclear power with its great possibilities seemed a viable solution to their problem, and in 1966, the first commercial nuclear reactor went live in Japan.  Today, 30% of the of the country’s electricity is generated by nuclear reactors, and as we all saw earlier this year, what at first seemed like a economic and environmental boon turned into an Achilles Heel. To quote a Reuters article “Japan is running 19 of 54 reactors in operation before the Fukushima disaster, raising the risk of serious power shortages into 2012. Many experts say economic risks are too high for Japan to pull the plug on all its reactors.” [2].

This is not to imply that our use of the digital technologies to distribute and archive our digital bits could result in the same fallout as a nuclear disaster. However, it is important that we remain cautious and thoughtful when considering where and with whom we will share our personal information. The World Wide Web is a ingenious and helpful tool, but it can also be a threat.

The marvel of the Internet runs on protocols that make the exchange of information possible.  Without the IP or HTTP protocols, the Internet would not exist, as we know it today.  The tributaries connecting the globe, allows users to share unique digital DNA with others in the form of e-mails, photographs, podcasts, digital job applications, banking and bill pay transactions, and even IP-based telephone conversations.  The speed with which data is transmitted, allows digital DNA to be saved and replicated around the globe in milliseconds.  The wide acceptance of social media networks creates a “comfort zone” where data can be shared with family and friends, and even strangers.  Yet, while there are protocols in place to deliver digital DNA around the globe, there are no standard protocols in place to insure the security of the “bits” and that the data is used only in the manner that the user intended.

The digital tributaries have lead to full digital disclosure. There is no way to dam the flow; the currents move at a rate of speed that is unstoppable.  But the rudder can be adjusted or an anchor lowered to slow things down or steer to a safer harbor. The Internet Traveler must assess where he is and take steps to put a stop to freely giving up his digital DNA without first considering the consequence. There are ways the Internet Traveler can protect his digital DNA.  First, always read the fine print.  It is easy to blow pass Privacy and Acceptable Use Policy documents without thinking.  How is the information collected used?  With whom is it shared? How long is the information retained? What happens to the information when he closes his account? Once he reads the document and agrees to it, or not, he should print and save it as a PDF file for safekeeping. The Internet Traveler should check the policies and the reputations of social sites that he would like to use. For example, even though he may choose to lock down access only to his Friends on Facebook, Facebook may make his digital DNA available to independent developers of an application that he may use to access Facebook through smart phone, or while he plays such seemingly innocuous things as Mafia Wars or Farmville. [3] While he is killing virtual gangsters or growing virtual corn, his private information is being high jacked. Not only does one need to assess who one is doing business with and who he is entrusting with his precious digital bits, he also needs to assess how he distributes, what he distributes, and when he distributes the elements that make up his digital DNA.

The Internet Traveler is responsible for each form of communication he chooses to use, whether he articulates his thoughts verbally, by e-mail, as a weblog entry, a Twit, or even as a text message.  The Internet provides a degree of anonymity that may seem to eliminate the need of taking responsibility for ones words and actions.  This anonymity may seem to some as a means to being able to “stand behind a veil of secrecy” and prevent exposure.  Yet, that is not the case.  The Internet Traveler should understand, and have it ingrained it in his brain, that when he chooses to publish information to the WWW it is public information and could very well be accessible by all in perpetuity.

The world’s dependency on the web is driving its use of information and its exploitation in ways that were unheard of decades ago.  In 1970, a prospective employer would have never requested that a prospective employee bring in their diary for review during the hiring process.  Yet, today human resource departments may be tasked to check a prospective employee’s weblog, Facebook or Twitter account to get a look inside the person the company is considering hiring.  The Internet Traveler cannot fault an employer for doing their due diligence during the hiring process.   Therefore, the Internet Traveler needs to be mindful at all times of what information he publishes in this digital age, for once it is out there, it is available for public consumption.

The information that the author’s of “Blown to Bits” provides the reader in the opening pages should cause one to pause and reflect.  However, it should not cause the Internet Traveler to run scared.  If the Traveler did not know this information before, it should challenge him to take better care of his data and keep a closer watch on those he entrusts his data with.  For those whom are charged with securing the digital DNA of others, they should purpose daily to take their responsibility seriously and diligently protect the precious digital DNA entrusted to them.  And lastly, everyone should be ringing the alarm and making others aware that they are all “Naked in the Sunlight.”[4]

References:

  1. Abelson, H., Ledeen, K., & Lewis, H. (2008). Blown to bits. Boston: Addison-Wesley.
  2. Slodkowski, A. (2011, June 15). Japan anti-nuclear protesters rally after quake | reuters. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/06/15/columns-us-japan-nuclear-protest-idUSTRE75A0QH20110615
  3. Leyden, J. (2011, January 21). Facebook defends security strategy. Retrieved from http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/01/21/facebook_security_analysis/
  4. Abelson, H., Ledeen, K., & Lewis, H. (2008). Blown to bits. Boston: Addison-Wesley.