In a January 7 Wired magazine article titled “How the NSA Almost Killed the Internet”, the author detailed the Edward Snowden leaks, the US National Security Agency (NSA) revelation of widespread information collection, and the indignant outcry from tech companies. The fact remains, however, that there is a trove of personal information that is scanned and analyzed by governments, private companies, and even those with less than honorable intentions. The NSA claims to do it in the name of national security, private companies claim to help make your life better by predicting what information or product you will need next, and the thieves are just in it for themselves. Nevertheless, it comes down to the fact that it is your information, and the question is—how is it that so many people have access to it?
In the summer of 2013, former NSA IT consultant Edward Snowden revealed documents that showed widespread data collection by the NSA. He did this, of course, after he was safely out of the country and away from potential prosecution. The documents revealed programs designed to collect information from cell phone metadata and also personal information from Internet records kept by companies such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Yahoo. Some of it was done through secret court orders and some without the knowledge of the companies just mentioned—all in the name of national security for the purpose of rooting out potential terrorism. The question still remains, however, how and why do these companies have your potential information and for what purpose?
Call For Reform
In a December 9, 2013 open letter to Washington, eight tech companies called for reforms on how information is collected and for more transparency in the collection methods. A couple of things strike me as odd about this proclamation. First of all, transparency has never been a hallmark of spy agencies and it seems ridiculous to even suggest that new reality. Second, the companies that collect personal information are now objecting to someone gathering that data from them?
It All Begins With Me
I have no doubt that the NSA and similar agencies have thwarted potential terrorist attacks by analyzing and acting on the data they collect. I believe that some of the methods are suspect but those agencies believe that they are making the world a safer place. Tech companies that provide social media, communications, and search capabilities also believe that they offer a service by drawing inferences from your personal information and steering you toward goods and services that you may like. Most of all, I believe that responsibility for my own information and my own comfort level in sharing that information lies with me. I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to clicking “I Agree” on that End User Agreement without reading the fourteen screens of fine print. I can’t guarantee that I understand the security policy and opt-out agreements of all of the applications that I use, but I am aware of the options I have and which information is being collected. In a sense, the Internet is still the Wild West and we are still trying to grasp the potential and complexity of it all. The first step in understanding is awareness and education. That is our responsibility.
Have you got it all figured out? Do you know the best methods for keeping you and your personal information safe? If so, I would love to hear from you. If not, we can always learn together.
Kelly Brown is an IT professional, adjunct faculty for the University of Oregon, and academic director of the UO Applied Information Management Master’s Degree Program. He writes about IT and business topics that keep him up at night.