Can We Have a Private Moment?

by Ama Debrah

In our era of technological advancement and worldwide terrorism, most of us have probably already considered where we stand on the whole “privacy” debate. How would I feel if my phone was tapped? How much information about me is being leaked through my Facebook? For the most part, I used to be pretty ambivalent about the whole privacy issue. Yes, I’d rather the U.S. Department of Defense not have naked pictures of me on their scanner, but if it’s to prevent a plane hi-jacking, I’m fine with putting my pride on the back burner. I had the same opinion on Internet privacy. All of my Facebook settings are on private, and since I have the social life equivalent to a gerbil, why would anyone want my private information anyway?

That all changed this summer, when I interned with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Hawaii. Although I strongly believed in many of the causes that the ACLU was advocating for, privacy wasn’t necessarily one of them. On my list of things I truly cared about, privacy concerns were ranked with football–good to know what everyone’s shouting about, but not something that I was ready to dedicate any of my time into exploring.

Over the summer, the Hawaii state legislature passed H.R.S. § 487J, a law on protecting the privacy of people’s Social Security Numbers. The law, which was fashioned from a similar law recently passed in California, puts restrictions on how a private company can use information like your name, address, date of birth, medical information, and weight collected from scanning your driver’s license. As many of us have may have agonized about, the primary reason to scan a driver’s license is to check the authenticity of the card, probably in the case of the purchase of age-restricted goods or services, like cigarettes or alcohol.

“Although annoying spam notifications may seem like a necessary evil, these small breaches of privacy can open the door to frightening possibilities.”

When I first started researching the bill for my internship, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. So what if a business knows I’m an organ donor? But as I did more research, I began to understand what all the ruckus was about. Prior to this law, there were zero restrictions on what private businesses could do with your information once obtained. This meant that businesses could store your private information for an unspecified amount of time and even sell it to advertisers and promoters. This routine dissemination of you privacy not only results in annoying ads or calls from telemarketers but also greatly heightens the risk of identity theft.

This startling revelation led me to question where else businesses could obtain my private information. After more research, I came upon several reports that unveiled the highly invasive nature of some mobile phone apps. You know those little pop-ups that appear when you first open a new app, the ones that say something like “This application would like to use such-and-such information,” and you need to click allow or deny? Once you click “allow,” these apps can do a lot more than just record how many times you played Cooking Dash this week. For example, apps can automatically subject you to advertising programs and notifications, change the settings on your smart phone, and similar to driver’s license scanners, can access your information to collect and sell to third parties. Apparently, the number of apps with this kind of technology is steadily growing, with an estimated report of one out of twenty free Android apps (equaling a minimum of 80 million downloads) containing this invasive technology.

Although annoying spam notifications may seem like a necessary evil, these small breaches of privacy can open the door to frightening possibilities. Apps that are able to access and change your phone data may also be able to collect your GPS data to track your schedule and even try to predict (with scary accuracy) where you’ll be in the future.

I am by no means telling you to unplug from and give up on all modern technology, but it’s good to be informed about where your information is going. It also may be a good idea to read the terms and conditions…sometimes.

Ama Debrah is a junior at Barnard and On Campus and Features and On-Campus Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.

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