People use a lot of services and devices to transmit and retain sensitive personal information. A person could use daily: a work computer, a personal computer, multiple email addresses, a work cellphone, a personal cellphone, an e-reader or tablet, a fitness tracker or smart watch, and an Artificial Intelligence assistant (Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, or Microsoft’s Cortana). The data retained or transmitted on these services and devices could include sensitive medical or other information, personal photos, financial data, and more.
There’s also the issue of the collection of information that could lead to other data being learned. For example, I wrote recently about health-app data and the surprising results of scrutinizing it. A man was alarmed by his wife’s heart rate data, as collected by her Fitbit, and asked others for assistance analyzing it. One theory: She could be pregnant. Did you know that heart-rate changes could signal a pregnancy?
Currently, there’s ongoing controversy concerning the data possibly collected by an Amazon Echo. The Washington Post explains, “The Echo is equipped with seven microphones and responds to a ‘wake word,’ most commonly ‘Alexa.’ When it detects the wake word, it begins streaming audio to the cloud, including a fraction of a second of audio before the wake word, according to the Amazon website. A recording and transcription of the audio is logged and stored in the Amazon Alexa app and must be manually deleted later.” Arkansas police have served a warrant to Amazon, as they seek information recorded by a suspect’s Echo. Amazon has refused to comply with the warrant.
Another issue is the security of your passwords. People are often reminded to create strong passwords or use a password manager. But there’s a security issue raised by a recent legal case that it’s likely few people have thought about: passwords used on shared devices. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on a divorce case where the husband pulled evidence from his wife’s email and Facebook messages. He did not hack into her accounts — the passwords were stored on their shared devices, and she did not change the passwords when they separated. So consider whether you really want to leave your passwords stored on devices that others, even your partner or children, could easily access.
Consider also the problems that can arise from your personal information being broadcast online. Recently, there has been scrutiny of the genealogy website Familytreenow.com. “Profiles on FamilyTreeNow include the age, birth month, family members, addresses and phone numbers for individuals in their system, if they have them. It also guesses at their ‘possible associates,’ all on a publicly accessible, permalink-able page,” the Washington Post reports. Such individual profiles, based on data from public records and other sources, have been created by data brokers for years for purposes such as targeted behavioral advertising.
Experts have suggested that people opt-out from such data collection, but it can difficult. For example, in 2014, reporter and author Julia Angwin wrote about how she attempted to clear her personal info from data brokers’ files. “Of the 212 data brokers that I managed to identify, less than half—92—accepted opt-outs. Of those, a majority—65—required me to submit some form of identification, such as a driver’s license to opt out. Twenty-four sites required the opt-out forms to be sent by mail or fax. In some cases, I decided not to opt-out because the service seemed so sketchy that I didn’t want to send in any additional information.” (If you want to opt-out of Familytreenow.com, here’s the link.)
Why am I rounding up all of these stories? To illustrate that there are a variety of ways to invade your personal privacy. Therefore, I urge you to reassess your privacy setup and lock down as much personal information as possible. Here are a few good resources. From the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Surveillance Self-Defense: Tips, Tools and How-tos for Safer Online Communications.” From law professor James Grimmelmann, “Be Prepared: Protecting Your Digital Privacy Before Trump Takes Office.” From journalist and author Julia Angwin, “Privacy Tools.” From Consumer Reports, “66 Ways to Protect Your Privacy Right Now.”