In the beginning, the Internet's endless possibilities and discretion intrigued us and let us assume identities we were too fearful to adopt in real life. It was not only a tool for economic prosperity but also an instrument for personal development. There was a perception anything done between the user and his computer remained within the confines of his consciousness and his computer's hard drive, a symbiotic relationship between man and machine.
The reality is far different.
Facebook has once again tinkered with its privacy settings, eliminating the option to opt out of Facebook searches. Google is instituting a policy that allows it to use individuals' personal information -- including but not limited to names, pictures, company ratings, and comments -- in advertisements.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the average Internet user is losing that cloak of privacy he once so naďvely exploited.
In addition to Facebook having access to more than 100 billion users and Google being the largest search engine in the world, there’s also the hefty NSA elephant in the room, which has been caught, red-handed, spying on Americans. The bond between man and machine has been intercepted by algorithms and data ciphers.
No longer is that 32-bit IP address a mask of concealment; it has become yet another tool used to track, audit, access, and ultimately manipulate the masses. Personal information has become the new gold mine, a prime example being a New York company called Lotame Solutions. "Lotame packages that data into profiles about individuals, without determining a person's name, and sells the profiles to companies seeking customers," The Wall Street Journal reported. "Ms. Hayes-Beaty's tastes can be sold wholesale (a batch of movie lovers is $1 per thousand) or customized (26-year-old Southern fans of "50 First Dates")."
The NSA claims security needs as its rationale for the invasion of America’s privacy. It is estimated that, in the name of security, the NSA stores metadata on millions of web users for up to a year, the Guardian wrote. The agency then uses a program called the Marina metadata application to analyze this information and chart patterns of life development.
With all these allegations surrounding the invasion of privacy, some users are searching for alternative means of interacting on and with the Internet.
Secure browsers such as IronKey or Comodo Dragon are among the tools they’re employing. These browsers ultimately protect your PC from malicious software and websites that may attack your computer. Also useful: anonymous search engines such as DuckDuckGo, which securely prevents anyone from tracking your search and Internet activity.
Some people are even taking the drastic measures of leaving the Internet entirely and using small mesh networks, which are simply collaborations of PCs. However, securing one's privacy is a time-consuming chore. Not everyone has the time to do it or the funds to pay for a service like Lifelock to do it for them.
The scariest aspect of all this is that we only know what these organizations -- Facebook, Google, the NSA, and others -- are sharing (willingly or involuntarily) with us. One can only try to fathom the programs and tools they're still operating in secret.
“The real danger is the gradual erosion of individual liberties through automation, integration, and interconnection of many small, separate record-keeping systems, each of which alone may seem innocuous, even benevolent and wholly justifiable,” according to the US Privacy Protection Study Commission almost 40 years ago.
Written in 1977, that remains words of wisdom for today. Privacy is like love: You don’t know how valuable it is, how precious, until it is gone. As a society we may soon feel the pain of that loss. The symbiotic connection between man and machine has been intercepted, it’s being monitored, and only time will tell if we allow it to be broken.
— Rasheen A. Whidbee is Director of IT at Broadstreet Productions. He has more than 15 years of experience in information technology.