Most of us understand the fundamentals of protecting our personal data. The concepts of data portability – and your vulnerability to theft, fraud and invasions of your privacy as functions of this portability – are issues with which many Americans are at least mildly familiar. I have explored different facets of these security issues in past Technocracy columns. The common thread among all of these articles is a single, merciless and implacable truth: You and your data are under attack from all sides and on all fronts by individuals, governmental entities and even your own fallibility.
According to Nachiket Mhatre, Mozilla (the company responsible for the popular Internet browser Firefox, among other things) demonstrated fallibility only too well this month, when it "inadvertently" posted a file online. The file contained e-mail addresses, first and last names, and algorithmic password data. In other words, the company published sensitive identity and security data that could be used for fraud, identity theft or simple vandalism ... because it made a mistake. There was no reason to post the file online, nor would Mozilla's employees ever want to make that data publicly available. This wasn't an issue of free speech; no activists were clamoring for transparency in Mozilla's record-keeping of user passwords. No, someone (or a group of someones) just screwed up.
Data breaches like this happen all the time. Many of us have had credit or debit cards canceled and reissued to us after a data breach at a "third party location" – usually hackers breaking into databases of account numbers and passwords that expose the holders of those cards to the possibility that thieves will make fraudulent transactions using the data. Sometimes these issues are caught before any stealing occurs, as was the case with a credit card of mine. Other times, the thefts aren't detected until a statement arrives. Several years ago I worked as an accountant for a firm whose business credit card was used to purchase several personal computers that were shipped to a hacker in Ireland.
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What many of us don't realize is that "hacking" is as close as the laptops sitting unattended on our coffee tables. Computerworld's Brennon Slattery reported this week that a Michigan man faces five years in prison simply for "snooping" in his wife's e-mail. Leon Walker's spouse, like many Americans, kept a list of passwords in hardcopy conveniently located nearby. For using that list to access his wife's Gmail account, Walker has been charged with "felony computer misuse." The prosecutor in the case has even used Walker's profession against him; Walker is a computer technician and thus has "wonderful skills" and is "highly trained" – a ridiculous overstatement when you consider that any idiot can read a password off a handwritten list of them.
PCMag says Leon Walker represents "the first known domestic case for unauthorized e-mail login." The reason this incident has become so legally charged is that Leon, Clara Walker's third husband, forwarded e-mails from his wife's account to his wife's first husband, with whom she had a son. It seems the wayward Clara was allegedly having an affair with her second husband, who was previously arrested for beating her. The first husband used the e-mail evidence to claim emergency custody of his son. It's not hard to imagine Clara Walker pursuing charges against Leon Walker in retaliation.
When they're not trying to get even with their estranged spouses, your fellow Americans are filing lawsuits against purveyors of technology who may be a bit too casual with the personal data those companies collect. You may remember the outrage over Facebook's distribution of user account information to data brokers, or the "wifi spying" troubles and tribulations of search giant Google. IDG News' Dan Tynan has spotlighted these and a host of other security issues from the past year. Just slipping in under the wire for 2010, however, is a new lawsuit: Apple and a few application developers are being sued "for allegedly transmitting user information to advertising networks without the consent of owners of [Apple's] mobile products, like the iPhone and iPad." Among the data being sent to advertisers is or was the location of the device in question. Tynan specifically emphasizes "geolocation services" as a potential threat. Everyone from hackers to marketers to your own government could be tracking your movements "thanks to that homing beacon in your pocket." That beacon is most commonly your smartphone.
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And what of smartphones themselves? It isn't just your own phone and the applications installed on it that must concern you. Now you have to worry about the applications on everybody else's phones, too. Earlier this month, news broke concerning the new "Patriot App" for the iPhone. Intended to "help fight terrorism," the application "taps into federal tip lines," allowing the user to "make reports, using pre-loaded forms, in any of several categories." Users can even include photographs and video with their upload. The software is obviously an extension of the "If you see something, say something" campaign designed to encourage awareness of suspicious activity. But in making snitching on your neighbors so convenient, so quick, so technologically enabled, are we creating the culture of pervasive, pernicious surveillance about which Orwell warned us?
Even the application's creators acknowledge that the Patriot App could be misused by individuals hoping to harass or otherwise take revenge on others. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Bob Barr sneered that being "a snitch" used to be thought of as "cowardly and craven" (qualities with which, presumably, Barr still associates the reporting of suspicious activity). He derided the "tattletale app" as a means of "squealing on a fellow citizen" while condemning the marketing that associates the application with patriotism.
Attacks on you, your data, your reputation and your civil liberties come from all sides and at all hours. The vigilance you must maintain is, at times, wearying. Everyone from your government to common thieves to your neighbors to your own family could represent a threat. Your only choice is to persevere with your eyes open and your mind active.