Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a three-part serialization of Michael S. Hyatt’s blockbuster new expose, “Invasion of Privacy: How to Protect Yourself in the Digital Age,” which is available at WorldNetDaily’s online store. At the end of this article, there is a link to Hyatt’s privacy self-assessment test.
Technology inevitably becomes the focus of most discussions about privacy because it is the means by which individuals and institutions find out what they want about us. We must keep in mind that technology is just that: a means, and not the basic impulse for the invasions on our privacy. Still, technological innovations have undeniably made privacy invasions possible in ways never before envisioned. The problem is particularly acute because we often embrace new technologies with naive optimism before they are really understood. Privacy is being eroded because of cheap information, ignorance about new technology, technological glitches and more intrusive surveillance.
Once businesses and governments had to keep all records on paper. But the bureaucratic days of filling out forms in triplicate and dusty rooms filled with filing cabinets are long over. Information is much less expensively and far more efficiently stored, and it is much more accessible. Not long ago, someone seeking information about an individual had to phone the proper institution and cajole or bribe an employee to dig up a physical record. Now databases can be accessed without any need to interact with other people, and duplicate information can be stored in a laptop computer. In addition, different pieces of data about a person can be merged together almost effortlessly to form a single, exhaustive profile.
A widespread lack of understanding of new technology is another cause of the problem. The way we use e-mail is a good example of this. When you send mail through the post office, you put it in an opaque envelope and seal it shut. Why? Because you want the contents to remain private – you don ‘t want someone other than the intended recipient reading your mail. But with e-mail, most people are doing exactly what they would never do with regular mail. Few realize how easily a third party can read their e-mail.
This widespread naivet? often prevents possible technological solutions to these problems from working effectively. Consider this statement from Kevin Railsback, the West Coast technical director of the InfoWorld Test Center:
“For some time now, I’ve been using [e-mail] security products such as PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) and its open-source version, GPGP (Gnome PGP). I have a public key, and I have the public keys of a few friends, but the technology isn’t too useful for everyday use. The basic problem is that until a critical mass understands how public its information really is on the Internet and decides that privacy is important enough to protect, then the majority won ‘t use the technology. Public key encryption, the building block that PGP and such products are built on, has been around for years. It works great, makes your e-mail virtually impossible to break in to, and isn’t that tough to set up.”
With all of the technological advances in data storage and transmission, glitches can now mistakenly make public all sorts of personal data. On Sept. 15, 2000, for example, First Virginia Bank’s online service allowed customers to view other people’s account information, including deposits, balances and cleared checks. In this case, the glitch did not affect actual balances or reveal personal identities. But earlier in the year, NetBank had sent a slip to one customer containing another customer’s personal information, including his Social Security number. And as CNET News.com reported, H&R Block “shut down its online tax filing service after the company accidentally exposed some customers’ sensitive financial records to other customers.”
A New Zealand man confessed in court to nine counts of using his “shoe-cam” to take video footage up the skirts of thousands of unsuspecting women and girls at public events. The device was unnoticeable on his shoe, linked by a wire running up the leg of his pants. The man then loaded these images on his computer and posted them on the Internet. This is but one example of the avalanche of new technologies: video cameras that fit on a shirt button; audio receivers that can be inserted seamlessly into a telephone, a fountain pen or a potted plant; scanners that can pluck telephone conversations out of the air and effortlessly trace them to their source; and much more.
Not only can criminals use these technological innovations, but governments and businesses can use them as well.
Just a month after Amy Boyer’s death, Forbes magazine ran a cover story on the lack of privacy in our society. Although the story was unrelated to the Boyer case, it featured Docusearch.com – the company that enabled Liam Youens to track down his victim. Forbes writer Adam L.Penenberg dared Dan Cohn, the head of Docusearch.com, to dig up all the information the investigator could find about him, starting with nothing but his name. Two days later Cohn had discovered Penenberg’s birth date, his mother’s maiden name, his address and his Social Security number. (Cohn said it took him only five minutes of actual investigation.) Penenberg was even more shocked at what Cohn was able to dig up in less than a week. He wrote: “In all of six days Dan Cohn and his Web detective agency, Docusearch.com, shattered every notion I had about privacy in this country (or whatever remains of it). Using only a keyboard and the phone, he was able to uncover the innermost details of my life – whom I call late at night; how much money I have in the bank; my salary and rent. He even got my unlisted phone numbers, both of them.”
People are justifiably outraged at Docusearch’s role in Youens’ murderous actions. But while Docusearch and other investigative services profit from the destruction of our privacy, they are not the ones primarily responsible for it. Indeed, it is all too easy simply to blame such companies – or government, or big business – for our present situation. But the fact is that we have enjoyed many of the benefits of the information revolution without really counting the cost. As cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote in Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Until we acknowledge that we are responsible for our present situation and have willingly exchanged our privacy for convenience or comfort, we will not take the steps necessary to regain control of our privacy – or our lives.
We have lost power over our lives because we want to enjoy the convenience offered us, because we try to exercise control over our lives. We are open to dealing with anyone who has a way of bringing us something quickly, conveniently, or cheaply – but in exchange for a little information.
Because of the convenience we gain, we tend to celebrate uncritically every technological innovation, be it e-mail, the Web, or whatever. As technology critic Neil Postman points out: “It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but both-and. Nothing could be more obvious, of course, especially to those who have given more than two minutes of thought to the matter. Nonetheless, we are currently surrounded by throngs of one-eyed prophets who see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo. They gaze on technology as a lover does on his beloved, seeing it as without blemish and entertaining no apprehension for the future.”
We are so content with the blessings we receive from the new technologies that we fail to realize just how much of our privacy we are giving away.
We are being tracked. Vast amounts of personal information are being collected and stored. The question is: Can we do anything about it?
We can – if we take the initiative. In fact, until more people are willing to show by their actions – by the way they live, communicate and budget their money – that they value their privacy, no reforms in government, or in business, or in law enforcement, are likely to do much good. We can and must protect our privacy, and this book is written to show you how to do it.
Read Part 1: Why personal secrets are no more
Read Part 2: Who’s tracking you?
Purchase Hyatt’s book, “Invasion of Privacy: How to Protect Yourself in the Digital Age.”