Face it. Everything you do online is visible to someone and can be used without your approval or agreement. You leave details of your online activity in your browser, on your desktop, in your smartphone. All the while, companies, your employer, advertisers and the government are picking up those traces, and piecing them together to make a more perfect profile of - you!
If you aren't scared now about what organizations know about you, you should be.
And, Apple let application developers exploit a flaw in iOS to see all of the contacts in your address book.
Facebook settled with the FTC last fall over its own questionable privacy policies and is now rumored (though they deny it) to be tracking the contents of your text messages from their smart phone app. "Like" something on a website? Facebook knows exactly what you were looking at. Think of every "Like" button on a web page as a Facebook cookie. And remind your friends that "Like" is simply a sneaky way for you to give more personal, valuable information to Facebook.
Your employer knows everything you do at work. They archive your emails - and the court has ruled that company emails are company property -- not personal property -- and that employees should not have an expectation of privacy when using company resources. Employers also know every website you visit, what pages you see, and how long you spend on each site. You have no privacy when you are working in the office, out of the office but online on your company's VPN, or doing anything on your company-provided smartphone, tablet or laptop. What you say and where you go belongs to your employer.
Advertisers have an insatiable appetite for user-specific information. Let me share my personal story (and you can try this yourself) Using Firefox, I went to preferences, privacy, and clicked on the underlined text that says "remove individual cookies." I was taken to a box that showed all of the cookies on my machine. I had over 1000 cookies, most advertiser-related. AND, I use Adblockplus, Betterprivacy, and had checked the privacy box titled "Tell websites I do not want to be tracked." The same thing happens with Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Safari. Scary. With much fanfare last month, the Government announced the "Do Not Track" browser button, which 400 companies have agreed to honor. Don't be fooled. This provides limited privacy at best -- and only from specific types of advertising, and only certain advertisers have agreed to use it.
Governments want to know more about you as well. The Electronic Frontier Foundation released a report entitled Patterns of Misconduct, which outlined the FBI's ongoing violation of our Fourth Amendment rights. If not for an aggressive, last-minute online campaign by an unofficial coalition of Internet freedom fighters, Congress was about to pass the SOPA legislation (Stop Online Privacy Act), which would have allowed (and perhaps in some cases required) the government and ISPs to inspect the contents of every packet of information sent across their networks. And Europe isn't far behind with SOPA's ugly cousin, ACTA, (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) which entrepreneurs in the EU have just started fighting against.
What can you do to reclaim your privacy? There is only one thing to do:
That's why our venture firm invested in Spotflux. Started by two Internet freedom fighters that have more than a decade of experience solving large-scale security challenges, Spotflux is a free privacy application for consumers, which works by encrypting your Web connection. It downloads in less than a minute on any Windows or Mac computer, anywhere in the world. Spotflux ran a beta test and in less than a year, attracted 100,000 users in 121 countries. It launches globally today.
Spotflux encrypts everything that leaves your desktop, pushes the data through their privacy-scrubbing service, and sends it along. To a website, you are not you -- you are Spotflux. And you are invisible unless you choose to login to a website, like your bank, Google, Twitter or Facebook. Even then, companies only know what you do on their site. When you log out, they don't see where you are on other sites. Better yet, Spotflux's HTTPS security means no one can eavesdrop on your conversation over a public Wi-Fi connection. And you can surf just as freely overseas as you do in the U.S. Want more? Spotflux also strips out annoying ads and injects real-time malware detection into your browser.
Consumers, policy makers and activists are fighting the privacy issue hard but they often face a daunting and cumbersome process. It shouldn't have to be this way, which is why we think Spotflux is on to something.
Weigh in here with your own privacy horror stories and what you think can be done to reclaim our lost privacy online.
Follow John Backus on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jcbackus