Technology Privacy Issues Worse Than You Think, but Not the Way You Imagine

Apple's FaceTime technology caused a serious breach, but more often than not, we are the biggest threats to our own privacy.
Apple's FaceTime technology caused a serious breach, but more often than not, we are the biggest threats to our own privacy. Photo by William Hook via Flickr
We read about a new privacy breach involving technology virtually every day. Some company's accounting system was hacked. Another had their email lists breached. Facebook services ads you don't want and offers your messages content to vendors.

Then, on Monday, it was widely reported that a bug in the Apple iPhone FaceTime technology caused, through a rather interesting hack, people to be able to access the mike on your phone and even its camera without you consenting. Basically, while using Group FaceTime, a new feature for the iPhone, you could call someone with FaceTime and manage to access his or her microphone and camera without the person on the other end answering. Whoops.

What has been missed in the not surprisingly hyperbolic responses and cries of, "But my PRIVACY!" from all corners is the fact that Apple immediately disabled the service thereby ending the problem until they come up with a fix. Also, it required some clever steps to even get to the point of accessing another person's phone.

Still, a breach is a breach and we've all become so accustomed to hearing about them, we are convinced that they happen all the time. One of the most common conspiracies in this regard is the "I was talking about carpet to a friend the other day on the phone and suddenly I'm getting ads from carpet companies on Facebook." There is a belief among many that Facebook and Amazon and Apple and Google are listening to and cataloging our every word and using it to sell us stuff or God knows what else.

Here's the thing, though. Our privacy is being compromised all the time and the extent to which companies have collected data on all of our lives is far more extensive and generally terrifying than you imagine. But, very little of it, if any, is collected without us knowing about it. In fact, we provide most of it ourselves...willingly.

As internet security experts have pointed out, the algorithms built into technology in Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and others are so sophisticated, they don't need us to say anything into a phone. In fact, collecting voice data is FAR more difficult than simply tracking where you go, what you do, what you write, what you like and what you purchase.

Take that carpet example. Let's say you've never visited a site to learn about carpet or tried to buy carpet online. But, let's say that you did read a review on Yelp of a floor company and you listed moving into your house on Facebook two years ago and you drove to a home improvement store last week and you looked at pictures of houses and part of the search was "flooring" on HOUZZ and maybe you liked a photo with carpet in it. From what websites you visited, what map information Google nabbed from you on your drive, the words you used in your posts online, your search history and likes, it wouldn't take a very sophisticated AI to figure out you might be considering some new wall-to-wall and serve you ads as a result.

Conspiracy theories are things we typically use to piece together complex things our brain can't quite sort out. We don't remember our every action or movement. But big data most certainly does and it leverages it every single day, sometimes to make our lives easier (remembering your last order at the grocery store, for instance) and sometimes to make the lives of advertisers easier. What we view as some nefarious attempt to steal away our privacy and rob us of our dignity is actually our own fault for not better safeguarding that privacy in the first place.

This is not to say big data and technology giants aren't deserving of blame. They are culpable in the sense that they don't explain these things to us. They purposefully obfuscate to make their offer more enticing. Before we know it, we've handed our world over to them without even thinking twice about it.

So, rail all you want against the monsters behind the machines hellbent on stealing our innocence, but keep in mind that they probably didn't steal anything without your permission.
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Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke