October 21, 2021

Internet Privacy and Us

I just finished, An Ugly Truth, the story of Facebook's efforts to protect its user's privacy and prevent so-called bad actors from employing the platform to spread misinformation and deceive people. Well-researched and using sources from both inside and outside the company, the narrative paints a disturbing picture of a company that struggled to control the behemoth it created. 

One camp of employees is fully committed to freedom for virtually all expressions of opinions and advertising messages, while the other is concerned about the potential for serious damage to democracy and privacy of personal data.

Watching the company leaders, employees, government officials, and Facebook users attempt to find the proper balance between freedom and protection is like watching a slow-moving disaster movie that affects pretty much the whole world.

Culminating with Russian and other hackers, stolen emails, bogus account ownership, propaganda, lies spreading like wildfire, and an internal system that chose profits over protection, the effect on the 2016 American election is painfully clear.

This post is not about Facebook, though I recommend this book for a deep dive into what can happen when almost 3 billion people are instantly and continually connected. More broadly, I would like to take a look at decisions we all make, almost daily about who can see, sell, and control our personal information. Problems can range from simply irritating like trying to sell us something, to outright dangerous like stealing bits of data that can end up with our credit ruined, even our Social Security number being sold to others. 

Somewhere in the middle is the issue of changing public opinion on issues that dominate the news today: racism, feminism, LGBTQ rights. Facebook, for one, has been a major force in helping to publicize events as diverse as the Women's March on Washington in 2017 or the public demands for more freedom in Egypt  Giving people a way to connect can be a very positive thing.

Unfortunately, given the number of people involved and the lack of concrete guardrails to prevent misuse, propaganda, false or exaggerated "news stories," even outright lies. find their way on these same pages. Apparently, removing them before they do serious damage is not easy and too often not a top priority.

What I'd like to focus on for the rest of our time together, is the issue of our personal online privacy. Facebook is not alone, not by a long shot. Google and Amazon hoover up data at an unbelievable rate.

Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp (the last two owned by Facebook) exist because they can provide extremely detailed profiles of users to advertisers willing to spend billions of dollars in reaching us.

Banks, credit card companies, online merchants, even those sites that sell you funny coffee cups or T-shirts depend on what we freely tell them about ourselves, our buying habits, our demographics, education level, even our marital status or sexual preferences.

I have read enough on this subject to understand that living even part of our lives online means we will share things about ourselves. That is part of the arrangement we agree to: convenience and selection in exchange for something detailed about us. There is really no way to be completely anonymous and use the Internet.

I am not sure enough of us realize how much we are giving away each time we click. Nor, do I believe many of us know there are steps we can take to close the firehose of data if even just a little.

Facebook and Google both offer privacy settings that are at least steps in the right direction. While not easy to find, it is possible to protect parts of yourself online. I strongly urge you to not accept the default choices from mainstream browsers. Take the time to switch off some of the more intrusive settings. Of course, using a browser like DuckDuckgo or even Firefox is more protective of your privacy than Google's Chrome or Microsoft's Bing. 

If you are more serious about building a bit of a wall between you and the data harvesters, a VPN is a good step. These Virtual Private Networks put you in a private network, away from prying eyes.

Foolproof? No. Better than the standard Internet. Yes. With your data encrypted and your IP address hidden, this is about as private as most of us would need to be. In some countries having a VPN is illegal, but not in the U.S. 

A solid Firewall to protect you from many hackers and malware is a must. I have both anti-virus and malware software installed, with automatic updates keeping the latest versions in use. If you use Windows, make sure you install the latest patches and fixes. Attempts to penetrate software happen hundreds of times a day. Out-of-date software can be fatal. Though not as porous as Windows, Apple products are not immune to hacking attacks. The same rule of updates and extra software applies.

Of course, none of these common-sense steps matter if you aren't selective about what you post on social media. Remind yourself that a picture you upload, a comment you make, or a nasty remark you publish will stay somewhere on the Internet forever.  

Sharing your full birthdate, the high school you attended, college attendance dates, or a list of all the places you have lived makes it easier for data thieves. Those personal details can create a direct path to your most personal information.

We can't live in fear, nor can we really be involved in life without the Internet. What we can do is be aware of what is at risk if we are not paying attention.  A long-time Facebook employee is quoted as saying, " [Social media's] effects are not neutral. "

As a character on Hill Street Blues said so many years ago, "Let's be careful out there, people."

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  1. From experience, I have learned never to comment on a story from any large publication (e.g., The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe) that has been reposted on Facebook. The comments are monitored by Russian hackers waiting to engage you, in order to spread their divisive messages. There is a highly recognizable pattern to their posts:

    1. The Russian hacker first comments on your comment by name-calling, extracting a word from your comment and adding "guy" to it. For example, "Okay, Medicare guy" or "Okay, Democracy guy."

    2. If you respond to his name-calling, the Russian hacker then asks you to answer three specific questions on the story's topic. These are always obviously "canned" and intended to provoke long responses.

    3. Whether you answer or not, the Russian hacker then posts a lengthy diatribe on the story's topic, filled with provocative keywords (e.g., "CRT," "Proud Boys," "Libtard"). These are also always "canned" comments.

    Why Zuckerberg permits this is beyond me. His reckless greed must have no limits.

    1. That is an interesting observation regarding the comment harvesting by hackers.

      The Facebook executives have created something that has outgrown their ability and willingness to properly control it. The flow of money is too great to allow decency and morals to regain control.

      This is an all too common story of hubris and greed.

    2. I firmly believe that no one was ever convinced in an argument on FB. It just fuels the ongoing fire in this country. IMHO.

  2. I look at Instagram because several bloggers post there more frequently. I have a Facebook account because of family members. I rarely post on either. After the last 18 months Amazon knows a lot more about my preferences in addition to a lot of personal information. I do not even want to think about on-line banking. I often think about security on the internet and I appreciate your post on it

    1. I use the convenience of Amazon as much as anyone. I know I am giving them pieces of myself and they are using them to target me with ads. As long as it doesn't go beyond that, I will continue.

      Facebook is another animal. It tends to provide me with anger at some of what is posted there.. My circle of "friends" is small and will stay that way.

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  3. If you go on the internet searching for a product..say shoes or blankets…next thing you know ads are popping up everywhere..some emails I get from unknown companies or organizations, I hit unsubscribe and they never stop..

    1. And, that phenomenon is almost instantaneous. Literally, with ah hour , an ad targeted to something I just searched for is there on Google.

  4. I cringe when I see some of the posts I made during the pre elections times. I realize now that fb is not at all the place to debate politics,religion or current events.I love it for being with friends,seeing their grandkids, trip photos ,following art groups, etc. and have made a concerted effort to keep political comment OFF there . As far as privacy I feel so overwhelmed by even TRYING to believe I have anyto left.. amazon, online info, they’ve got my info out there, and everyone else’s too.. what can we really do?Except be as careful as we can, going forward.but we use the Internet for so much.. these times are certainly nothing we ever anticipated.. “Brave New World”. And the book “1984” seem tame in comparison.

    1. Privacy has become not that unlike "truth" in some circles. We define what we are comfortable with and move forward.

      I do use double-authorization when possible, and I keep my credit files locked. Even so, every word I am typing now is going somewhere to tell someone something about me.

  5. In the past, I shared a lot more on FB, but the more I read about it, the less I share. I am a member of several "private" (ha!) groups where there are discussions of interest to me. And a while back, I realized that when I comment on a public page, any of my friends can see it. I've become very circumspect about what I comment on. And I took down and locked down a lot of my FB info. That said, if it was once out there, I gotta believe it still is.

    This week I was gifted with another credit card fraud dance. Luckily, Chase is quick in recognizing these false charges and shuts down the card virtually immediately. But now comes the task of waiting for the new card, updating the auto payments I make with it, and (the worst) adjusting my Quicken software to change the account and still try to get any valuable info from it over time. Did this about three years ago. There have been so many data breaches at this point, no one is sure where the fraud originated. Resistance is futile, as they say. :-)

    1. One interesting part of the book referenced above was the decision to introduce private groups.

      Very quickly FB realized that, by being private, the people who are to check for inappropriate content vouldn't see what was being posted. Hundreds of racist, white supremacy, and other types of hate groups were multiplying behind the privacy setting. FB could get into these groups to check on them but it took much longer. Plus, the groups were popping so quickly, the engineers couldn't keep up with the problem.

      Credit card fraud scams, and hacking have become so common that they rarely make the news anymore.

  6. I do Internet searches on myself and other family members once in a while to see what's out there. I found myself on one site the other day and 1) the cell phone number they posted was wrong (it was one of our daughter's); 2) the landline number was our old one from back in Portland, but we haven't had it for over 12 years; 3) the address posted was our old one here up in Kapaa, before we left in 2018. We've had a PO Box since we arrived back in 2020 and so far it hasn't shown up anywhere nor do we get very much junk mail these days. Anyway, I felt hopeful after I came across that site - it supposedly provided the most information but got almost all of it wrong (it sadly had my correct birthday, although for many things I do online I use a false birth date).

    I only keep my Facebook account open now to use our local Buy & Sell group. When we leave Kaua'i next year, FB will be closed, although I'll still use Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp overseas. I have no commercial ties through any of those platforms though, which may or may not help, and we use a VPN and have other security measures on our devices.

    1. I don't think I've ever Googled myself or family members to see what pops up. I'm not sure I have wanted to know. But, now you have peaked my interest. All that info on you (and mostly wrong)? That is a little disconcerting.

      There are probably no more than two dozen people I interact with on Facebook. I used to belong to several of the private groups, but have dropped most of them because I got tired of all the notifications. I like the idea of a fake birthdate when a commercial site wants that type of info.

      That is interesting you have a VPN setup. You and I spend a fair amount of time online. That may be something I should investigate. Thanks for the prod.

    2. I don't think I am a typical social media user. I have never had a FB account. I don't use twitter, snapchat or any other service of this type. I comment on a very small number of blogs. I switched from Google long ago to DuckDuckgo. I have never used a mobile phone for a financial transaction. If someone sends me a link to an article with a political slant I almost always delete it. If congress chooses to regulate or break up any of the social media sites it would not bother me in the least.

    3. I would say all those "never haves" does put you in the minority, but certainly not out of step with millions of others. I salute your decision to avoid so much of the distraction all around us.

      You are data-safer than many of us.