Big Brother Everywhere
The other day, a friend of mine, who was installing Skype on a new computer, was baffled when Skype suggested all sorts of contacts that weren’t on his Skype contact list but in his address book. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal provided an answer in its article on the voluminous personal information Facebook apps pilfer from users and their friends.
“Apps are gateways,” it said. Address book info, location, even sexual preferences … nothing is safe. And not just of the user but also of the user’s friends—privacy settings don’t stop your personal data from being grabbed by apps your friends are using. Turns out, the Skype app picks up address book data along with whatever else it can find.
The app economy is big bickies, as my friends from down under might say, with estimated revenues of $20 billion in 2011. Silicon Valley and San Francisco are hotbeds for app developers, and some of them are getting funded, and a select few have successful exits, such as photo-sharing app Instagram that ended up on Facebook’s shopping list for a cool billion.
At watering holes or events where developers and entrepreneurs hang out, the conversation often bounces across the app economy and the “cloud” it relies on, that notion of amorphous servers that handle storage and processing needs off site. Yet, the cloud is not amorphous. It is composed of companies with real people, servers, and computers, and some of the people are hanging out at bars, and soon they tell you how they access data their users have uploaded.
Cloud-based services brag about SSL encryption and make you sign in with complex passwords to make you feel secure, but like banks, their employees and data-mining algorithms can access your data stored on their servers to be monetized in some way. That’s the nature of the cloud on the commercial side.
But the government, which has largely been left behind in this quest for personal data, jumped into the fray with different and most likely less efficient methods. Examples abound. The latest—and most worrisome for international travelers—is Glenn Greenwald’s story about the travails that journalist and filmmaker Laura Poitras experiences every time she returns to the US. Among her documentaries were “My Country, My Country” which was filmed in Iraq and was nominated in 2007 for an Academy Award, and “Oath” which focused on two brothers in Yemen. “Poitras’ intent all along with these two documentaries was to produce a trilogy of War on Terror films,” Greenwald writes. And that got her on a list of Americans who receive special attentions from the Department of Homeland Security.