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Episode #101: The End of Privacy

Episode #101: The End of Privacy

There is no more peaceful existence with tech while remaining private

Friends, I apologize. It’s been many months since I’ve researched, authored, and then published a post here. Or anywhere, now that I think about it.

There are two reasons for that. The first is that my life has changed, somewhat substantially, in the past six months, with new priorities for my family and myself. But there’s another reason, and it’s equally, if not more important.

I no longer believe that it is possible for us to coexist with technology and maintain our personal privacy.

This is not a statement that I make lightly nor is it a conclusion that came quickly or without some deep consideration. I’ve been writing about privacy and security matters since about 2010. What I observed in the privacy world since then initially began as a gradual erosion of our individual and collective privacy. Those things could be mitigated.

But then the erosion of privacy snowballed into a massive decay and this, dear friends, I do NOT think can be mitigated. As a result, I cannot advise that any of us can safely and privately coexist with our technology.

Now, you may be thinking, “David, come on! You sound like a dystopian or an apocalyptic preacher. Please: you’re just being extreme.”

Maybe. But not because what I’m saying isn’t true.

Our Data is Being Shared or Stolen

What is certainly true is that, since 2010, the world of technology has merged with the world of interconnectivity, then the world of corporatization and profits, and then, again, with the world of social media.

As a result, whatever was left of our individual privacy has been just about destroyed. I can cite many examples of this.

Drivable Computers

Cars have now become “drivable computers” which — just like the computers on our desks — collect data about us. In this case, how and where we drive and, more ominously, who we are. Then they sell that data to other companies.

Tesla, not surprisingly, is the fucking worst. But Nissan is right behind Tesla with their claims to collect not just your sexual activity but your genetic information.

One lovely exception to this trend is Renault, although their cars are only available in Europe. Turning off these data collection mechanisms in US cars — it’s usually turned on by default — is complicated if not impossible. In fact, in some cases — hello, again, Tesla! — turning off data collection can prevent the car from functioning. #sigh

At this time, I do not believe that we can coexist with the technologies that we love and enjoy ANY expectation of privacy.

Pocket Computers

In today’s modern world, our cell phones are with us at ALL times. Many of us get nervous if we can’t find the devices. We bring them to bed, to our cars, to our work, and on our social outings. And although our pocket computers are a huge convenience, they are also a huge liability. That’s because they’re constantly transmitting, receiving, and collecting our data. Companies can elect to ignore these data or take advantage of them.

Google tracks and saves your locations, by default and has an awful reputation about how they sell that data to advertisers. Apple collects and stores our data as well, although its reputation is far better than Google’s when it comes to its users’ private personal data.

Companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and others, RELY on sharing our personal locations in order to keep customers happy. Yay! But Uber’s been hacked, exposing your info. Lyft’s been accused of customer data theft by its own employees. Caveat emptor.

AT&T has now rolled out information that allows 911 dispatchers to more precisely target our exact location to within 55 yards. And while this kind of precision is extremely useful in emergency situations, that ability is now ALWAYS there. But that’s not even the biggest issue.

AT&T — like all American companies — must comply with legal orders to provide law enforcement with your personal “private” information when requested to do so. They regularly provide transparency reports on these requests. Here is AT&T’s Feb 2024 report. Of the 129,329 total requests for your data they received from law enforcement, they provided your data 87,471 times, or about 68% of the time.

Lastly, it’s worth reminding the public that our cell phones are still transmitting and receiving certain data even when those devices are in airplane mode. GPS, for example, receives satellite information on your Android and iPhones even when they’re in airplane mode. We are constantly giving technology companies information about where we are by simply carrying our cell phones with us.

“Convenience” Trackers

Apple’s AirTags are being used to track people and stalk people, and they’ve even led to murder by less-than-savory individuals.

Google (and other companies) record and save your voice and then use the data for “marketing efforts”?! This includes, of course, audio of anyone’s voice in your home, including children.

And don’t get me started on the Ring Video Doorbell fiasco… when it was revealed that Amazon employees were spying on their customers’ video feeds. Amazon, a company worth 4.5 gaJILLION dollars was forced to pay a penalty of $5.8 million to teach them… “a lesson”, I guess.

Finally, we come to a cataclysmic event that just happened in January of this year, 2024. It was a data leak so massive and so unprecedented that it’s now been dubbed “The Mother of All Breaches” or MOAB. 26 billion accounts with your data were captured from websites such as LinkedIn, Adobe, Canva, Xwitter, Evite, TenCent, and many, many others.

Twenty. Six. Billion.

With a “B”.

I highly recommend that you use this tool to check if any of your associated email accounts are included in the data that were captured in the hack. Mine were. so it’s a safe bet that yours were as well.

screenshot from the MOAB security check website

Sadly, there are too many examples of large-scale theft of our personal data to mention in just one article, so here’s a link to a Wikipedia page that lists data breaches from all over the world. There you’ll see how many millions or billions of people have been impacted by each of those breachers.

Bring a stiff drink with you.

Social Media is Dangerous

I’m tired of people who claim that social media is “fine” and that there are healthy ways to use it. There aren’t and the data are clear: going online can inflict damage on young and impressionable minds. When used addictively — which it is designed to be — technology can cause all kinds of emotional, social, and physical problems.

Worse, by simply using social media platforms — even if we believe, falsely, that we are doing so in a healthy way — we are voluntarily giving away our personal data to companies like Facebook who then misuse it in incredibly damaging and often illegal ways.

Older Methods Are Dying

Earlier this year, our neighborhood lost power during two, awful winter storms. As a result, we lost our cell phone service for three days. Twice. I, therefore, researched if we could grab an old-fashioned landline so that my family and I could communicate even if the power went out. We have the lines already IN our homes. I just wanted the service connected.

That option wasn’t available.

In fact, if you still have a landline: you won’t for much longer. Companies are scrapping that technology.

We’ve Lost Most Recourses

Are there ways to mitigate privacy and security problems? Yes. There are. But how much inconvenience is the average person willing to accept to do so?

  • Can you get rid of your cell phone and still lead a productive life in today’s world? Can your child?

  • Can you only buy and use older cars? You know: the ones that don’t track, collect, and sell all of your personal data?

  • Can you rid your home of all smart lights, smart switches, and smart home devices?

  • Can you purge and then delete all of your social media accounts?

  • Can you stop using ride-share services and simply use taxis?

  • Can you do the same for your Google, Microsoft, and Adobe accounts?

  • Can you remove all computers and routers from inside your home?

  • Can you make the decision to only surf the web — either at work or at a local coffee shop — and then only while using Tor or a VPN to maximize your privacy?

CAN anyone make all of these changes? Of course! But WILL anyone do so?

Probably not because it’s complicated, very time-intensive, and would render our lives far less convenient. I understand the resistance, of course. And, to be honest, despite being a security and privacy advocate and researcher, my family and I still use some of these services ourselves.

Our One, Last Option

Without any binding laws or oversight from the US government, we’ve allowed corporations to create a culture of wantonly exploiting humans for their data.

The EU has done a far better job of protecting citizens in this category with laws like GDPR and other legislation and bold anti-trust efforts against companies like Apple.

The US and the rest of the world now need to follow suit and create laws that deeply protect customers and their personal data. I’m not a legislator, but if I were, I’d include the following provisions in any law that I’d propose to regulate any company that collects user data of any kind.

No collecting of customer data without…

  1. Their express consent.

  2. Full transparency about which data are being collected.

  3. Clearly stating how long customer data will be kept.

  4. Explicitly stating how those data will be used and with whom.

  5. An easy-to-find, one-button opt-out, so their data can be purged from the company that collected it at any time and for any reason from both the original company that collected it AND any corporate partners with whom they’ve shared those data.

  6. Penalties — based on a percentage of the net profits of the company — that increase over time from an initial violation to any subsequent violations of the legislation.

  7. Banning the worst, repeated offender corporations from collecting any data of any kind.

  8. Revoking the licenses of those companies who refuse to comply, losing their ability to operate or do business.

So, What Now?

Does technology still thrill me excite me and help my creative process? 100%, yes. Do I find cool software applications that change my workflow and make me more productive? Yup.

But do I think I can keep writing about personal and professional security and privacy in today’s age…?

For the first five months of 2024, I wasn’t sure, so I just sat with the question and let it become something of a meditation. During that time, I continued to follow the tech world’s best and newest offerings.

But now it’s June. For the past few weeks, a terrible fear has sprung up in me that I’ve avoided confronting or writing about: I’ve resisted making peace with the fact that maybe, just maybe, my writing about privacy and security has run its course and served its purpose.

At this time, I do not believe that we can coexist with the technologies that we love and enjoy ANY expectation of privacy.

Therefore, how can I continue to write articles which help my readers increase their privacy when doing so is, mostly, just an illusion at this point? I don’t think that I can, but I want to hear from you.

Are my articles helping you? Are the 100+ that I’ve written here worthwhile? Are there topics that I should cover that, perhaps, achieve other goals?

For example, maybe you like how I simplify certain technologies so that you can better understand them and you find that useful. OK, great! Please let me know that here so that others can also see your thoughts.

For now… I am at a crossroads. But I thank you for being subscribers, both free & paid. You’ve made it an amazing adventure.

I’m not sure if I’m signing off, but I’m not sure if I’m signing on, either.

Tech Talk - The Technology Newsletter for Everyone
Tech Talk - The Tech Podcast... for Everyone
TechTalk is a podcast that's meant to help absolute beginners and non-technical people learn about technology in a fun and informative way. We don't talk over your head! Instead, we use everyday language to make sure that you understand all of the important subjects and challenges that we discuss. Tech is important: let's learn about it together in a fun and funny way.