Tech and privacy: What’s next?

Is 2013 the year that should be engraved on the tombstone of privacy? Can some semblance of privacy be reclaimed in 2014, or is it forever lost? We take a look at the aftermath of the NSA spying revelations, as well as some other issues related to tech and privacy.

• Each new report based on the leaks by Edward Snowden seems to indicate the government spying programs know no bounds. We’ve learned — and in some cases, the government has acknowledged — that almost all our electronic communications are being watched or tracked in some way. A report Thursday from the Washington Post said the NSA is building a quantum computer with the aim of breaking almost any type of encryption.

Some key questions for this year: Will tech companies such as Google, Yahoo and more get what they’ve asked for — a chance to reveal more information about what they say is legally required compliance with the NSA — as they deal with what seems to be their inability to protect their information from the government? Will they suffer long-term business consequences?

What about telecom companies’ role in the scooping up of user information? Some have called them negligent for failing to implement fixes that supposedly would’ve kept the government from eavesdropping on mobile phone calls. Verizon has said it will begin publishing transparency reports this year; will the others follow?

There also are security issues related to the spying. Besides the much-cited national-security reasons, there are backlash risks, such as what the Syrian Electronic Army claimed responsibility for this week: the hacking of Skype’s social media and blog accounts. The hackers accused Skype parent Microsoft of selling user data to governments.

And just how much will the government rein in the spying? President Obama recently said he would take into account a review panel’s recommendations to make changes in the NSA’s information collection; citing national-security concerns, former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden said Obama should reject the recommendations.

• Well-known retailers do it. So do companies that aren’t household names. We’re talking data mining. As most of us know, it’s not just the government that can track the public based on online habits, among other things. Combined with offline purchases and other personal details, data brokers such as Axciom have compiled profiles on more than 700 million consumers, Brandon Bailey reported in the fall. That information is gathered with the help of things such as website cookies, store loyalty cards and publicly available records.

Some of those who shrug their shoulders at NSA spying have pointed out that many of us willingly turn over our information to companies all the time, so why get upset about the government’s collection? But others have pointed out that many consumers may not be aware of the true costs of surrendering their information.

• What will the Internet of Things bring? Will the ability to connect everything to a network be more helpful or harmful? Steve Johnson writes that the rise of connected gadgets and devices is expected to benefit tech companies such as Intel, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and big data company Splunk.

Helpful uses associated with the Internet of Things range from medical alerts to sensors that can warn of dangerous situations on roads or bridges. Also, being informed that you’re running low on milk or eggs.

But anything that’s connected can transmit information, and with whom and where that data is shared is what concerns some people. It could mean near-complete loss of control over what we share. The information could be misused by stalkers, insurance companies, vengeful co-workers or bosses or the just plain ill-intentioned. (Hacked pacemaker, anyone?) A couple of months ago, the Federal Trade Commission held a public workshop to discuss privacy and security concerns — potential regulatory issues abound; they’re complicated. It reportedly didn’t seem to do much good.


Photo: A protester with the organization Code Pink wears giant glasses with the message “stop spying” in Washington, D.C., in this October 29, 2013, file photo. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)


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  • Steve Hammill

    Privacy died long, long ago – even before computers and networks. But computers, networks, and agent telemetry make it possible to track EVERYONE.

    When this came up at the water coolers in the 90s, right after I’d read everyone’s SMTP mail in my Sniffer, people would say to me…

    “You have no evidence…”
    “Where’s your data…”
    “There are no studies about that…”

    …and I’d say, “How’s the wife like that new FILL-IN-THE-BLANK-WITH-INFO-FROM-AN-EMAIL.”

    Actually, I was never that obvious 🙂

    Simply put: “Governments are NEVER trustworthy even when they are functioning close to the people’s ideals” AND “Businesses will use whatever means necessary to get into your wallet.” You’d need to be a real dunce to not have known otherwise when you got out of grade school.

    The “Internet of Things” could have immense benefits, but it is more likely to be “The mark of the beast.”

  • Roger Draper

    Funny how the chicken-little folks out there get their undies in a bundle when the NSA does its job, but when Google, Yahoo, et. al. do the exact same thing it’s cool. As for you Code Pink fanboys and girls out there, next time you’re in the middle of a 9/11/Boston Marathon/London 2005 crisis, be sure to call Medea Benjamin for help.

  • Skip Manley

    the NSA had a warehouse full of Crays back in the early 80’s.. way before smart phones or a public internet (it was darpa-net back then) .. the only thing that could eat up that many computers was surveillance.. it’s been going on in one form or another for decades, In reality Google knows more about you than the NSA, they track, one way or another, every move you make, with your phone and the sites you visit.. Look at the ads that are displayed after you visit a site.. you’ll see ads for the same site or it’s competitors, have a phone with their OS? they know where you have been, who you called.. and much more. The NSA is swamped in data it has a hard time using.. Google is the one selling it and is the bigger risk