Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks, you will have heard of the US surveillance operation known as “PRISM”.
If you haven’t heard about it, here’s the "nutshell" version of events: news got out that many social networks and technology companies, including Verizon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, AOL, Apple and Yahoo!, have been handing over information to the US National Security Agency (NSA). After the initial denials from all involved, the layers of this "onion" were slowly peeled up to reveal that, yes, there’s lots of truth to it.
Metadata: where the pay dirt is
The initial spark concerned Verizon and phone call data. Whilst the content of the phone calls were not handed over, the data about the calls was. This means that the NSA could see who was calling who, how often and when. While the media frenzy grew regarding what data they’d been told was released to the NSA, the biggest issue isn’t the actual data itself. The real issue became the meta-data that is sometimes attached to the data, or what can be inferred from this data. That’s where the pay dirt is.
For instance, in the Verizon data, there was routing information that explained how the calls are connected, thus giving away the locations of both parties. Additionally, you can infer that if someone keeps calling their doctor and the local hospital, there’s a member of that household with health issues. There’s a lot more information in this "metadata" (data about data) than most people would expect.
Hornets nest of privacy
Largely, we’ve all agreed to this – Just look at how many people are on Facebook and have agreed to the user agreement, for example, which states "We use the information [uploaded by users] to prevent potentially illegal activities." It’s easier to leak your information than you would expect.
Arguably, the biggest issue now are digital photos. In the minute that it takes for a friend to snap a photo on their smartphone and tag you in it on Facebook, the header information of the photo has been stamped with the GPS location of the phone on which it was taken. Now, without your direct consent, Facebook (and, likely, the NSA) knows where you were, and when. Throw in automatic facial recognition and you have a real hornets nest of privacy.
This is the primary reason why Google has stated that it will now ban Facial Recognition Apps from it’s forthcoming Google Glass platform.
Whether you like it or not
For many years we’ve been saying that at some point, the public is going to become aware of what personal information is out there. Now that this cat is out of the bag, you can expect to see a long drawn out fight as changes in privacy laws clash with government policies in the name of anti-terrorism.
At the centre of this dragnet approach to data is you.
Metadata use in our digital lives is only likely to increase as time goes on–in fact, in the forthcoming OSX Mavericks release, it’s the primary method employed in organizing documents, images and other data. This can only increase the foot print a person leaves online, and, unfortunately, makes everyone a bigger target of clandestine spy programs like PRISM.
Check your privacy practices not just your privacy settings, because, alas, you are likely caught up in this whether you like it or not.
If you would like to know how to establish better privacy practices contact us for more information! We’d love to help!