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“You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror but it sees everything….”. Anyone who is a fan of the TV series Person of Interest will recognize that line as the beginning of the programme’s monologue.
But is it just made-up television entertainment, or is it actually real? Are you really being spied on every hour of every day? Or is that hot babe staring at you from across the street actually really into you?
Post-911, the surveillance in western countries has obviously increased. Cameras are now monitoring streets and sensitive buildings, while heavily armed police and soldiers are protecting public places such as airports, train stations, and important tourist attractions.
But where the surveillance is most pervasive is online, digitally. Things which may seem on first glance to be positives, can actually be something a bit more sinister, if you dig deeper.
I’m not saying we don’t need security, and that the bad guys aren’t out there. Of course they are. But as you will see from the following examples, maybe some of that surveillance and monitoring has gone a bit too far….
I’m sure you’ve experienced it many times. As you are having your grocery shopping put through the checkout, the operator says “do you have a loyalty card with us?”
At first glance, loyalty cards seem cool, getting points the more you shop with them. 10,000 points get you a toaster! Or if you shop with one supermarket chain, you get free coffees and free newspapers instead. If you go to Starbucks, you can get a stamp on your card everytime you buy a coffee, and then you get a free one when you achieve a certain number of stamps (usually 10).
Sounds cool right? So what’s the problem with these cards?
Well first, the supermarket hands you an application form and gets all of your details which they then sell on to data brokers. You’re volunteering your name, address, phone number, date of birth, gender, marital status, and more. Then your grocery purchases start to get logged, and a customer profile is formed. What was that rushing out the door earlier? Only your Privacy saying “adios”.
That customer profile is then examined and tweaked to decide which coupons and offers you will be getting, compared to other shoppers. And food and drink companies will approach the supermarkets and ask for customer data on their product, so they can outdo their rivals. That’s when the junk mail starts arriving by post and the spam emails start clogging up your inbox.
This article from the Guardian is very eye-opening and worth a read. Do yourself a favor and destroy those loyalty cards now. But then again, as the Guardian article says, they can also track you by your debit and credit card details, and even if you pay cash! So perhaps there is no escape? Maybe starvation is the only option?
After a lifetime of being a lover of paper books, I am finally weakening and starting to enjoy more Kindle books and iBooks. I like the idea of getting the book instantly, getting a free preview, and also being able to look up definitions of words I don’t understand. But the one thing I absolutely love – and which I would never do in a real book – is highlight passages for later reference. In iBooks, you can then email those highlighted passages to yourself for later reference.
But what if those book purchases and highlights are being looked at? It seems likely if you believe what Edward Snowden says. According to him, Amazon “leaks info like a sieve” to the US Government. This enables authorities to monitor your purchases and keep tabs on what you are reading. Did you highlight a section on bomb making? That will earn you a red flag. Highlighting passages in the Koran? That may prompt an NSA analyst to take a closer look at you.
Kind of makes you want to go back to paper books and payphones doesn’t it?
In one of my previous articles here on MakeUseOf, I discussed how to totally separate yourself from The Google, if that was what you want. But let us now look at reasons why you may want to do that.
Well, first the obvious – Google searches. Unless you use Incognito mode, and/or search without signing out, all of your searches are going to be recorded, including the embarrassing ones. That includes typing in all of your symptoms to get cures for your chronic illnesses, and looking for the lyrics for every single Bette Midler song in existence. Soon they would have a complete profile on you, which decides what results you get back when searching.
Google is a great service and can tell you everything you need to know. But whatever pages were shown to you, you need to always adopt the attitude that other, perhaps better, pages are being hidden. To circumvent these restrictions, you need to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) – and don’t forget to log out as well!
Then consider Gmail. The service is absolutely great, but they scan all of your emails to provide a “customized experience”. How many of you are creeped out by the thought of your very personal and private information being scanned?
How many times have you visited an e-commerce site such as Amazon, and when you surf to another site (not Google), there is an Amazon advertisement showing exactly the same item you just looked at? That bottle of coyote urine is then haunting you as you continue navigating through the Interwebs.
Amazon no-holds barred policy to getting you to part with your money involves placing a cookie in your computer, and this cookie records when and where you were looking for an Amazon product. Then when you visit a site with Amazon Affiliates promotional boxes, what you had previously looked at will be sitting there looking at you saying “buy me!”
The solution? Stay logged out of Amazon while making your searches, and do it in incognito mode. Alternatively, dive into your list of cookies and delete the Amazon ones after you’re finished. But to me, that will get quite annoying very quickly.
RFID (which stands for radio frequency identification) is increasingly being used in a number of different ways. The first is to maintain highway toll passes and subway passes. So this means that whoever controls the technology will know where you’ve been and where you are now.
RFID also tracks travel luggage, and parcels. So where you’ve been and what you’ve been ordering is recorded. Thirdly, RFID is increasingly being used in supermarkets, so grocery purchases are logged.
Fourth, passports are now embedded with RFID technology, making the passports impossible to forge. But that e-passport (also known as a biometric passport) now has a lot of information about you. So maybe now your travel is also being logged?
But most chilling of them all, RFID chips are now being implanted into human beings. So now you’ve just become a self-made tracking beacon. Congratulations.
Watching TV & Listening To Music
Since Snowden claimed that Amazon “leaks info like a sieve”, it calls into question how secure Amazon Instant Video is. Since there are no Jihadi soap-operas on Amazon Prime, and the government couldn’t care less whether or not you are catching the latest Marco Polo TV show, the only thing you need to worry about here is Amazon selling your viewing data to data brokers looking to build a customer profile about you.
The same goes for Netflix and Hulu. Their customer data is a goldmine for companies that deal in information.
When it comes to listening to music on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, or any other similar service, it’s the same deal as the TV watching. Although the CIA and MI5 won’t lose any sleep over you rocking to Dolly Parton, customer information is the Holy Grail for data companies.
How to stop it? Use a VPN, and give false details when signing up (except the credit card obviously). So if for example, you are a 25 year old white male living in Texas, sign up instead as a 62 year old black woman living in Toronto. Or do things the old fashioned way – switch on an actual TV set, and listen to the radio. What’s a radio? Google it. I’ll wait for you.
It’s Not About the Tinfoil Hat
Although I come across as a Mr Tinfoil-Hat Area-51-Agent-Mulder type of guy (I’ll pause while you rush to reassure me that I’m not!), it’s definitely true that your personal information is being abused. How else to explain the junk and spam mail? And the RFID chips are a matter of public record. So I am not totally certifiable.
Do you think we are being monitored more and more each day? Are our civil liberties slowly eroding, never to return? Does this mean the terrorists are winning? Let us know in the comments below.