When we look back at 2010, it will be remembered as a year in which we continued to lose our privacy at an astonishing rate. Facebook notoriously released its members' private information for anyone to see and permitted advertisers to access information that it promised to would be private.
It was the year that Google collected our personal information, including e-mail, passwords, and files, using their cars that roam neighborhoods photographing our homes for its Street View application. Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, dismissed these complaints, saying if you don't like Google Street View photographing your houses you "can just move," and "if you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."
Yet, in comparison to other companies that amass and market our personal data, these two are more responsive to public criticism. They both have public images to maintain and both claim to have taken corrective action to prevent these events from recurring. The problem is that no company can ensure it won't happen again, not when a single employee or a computer hacker anywhere in the world can create havoc. Or when unscrupulous companies comb all of this public information and resell it to others.
So today, if you go onto the Internet, write e-mail, sign up on various sites, get a shopper's card, or even use a smartphone, expect the information to become public and to be sold to unscrupulous sites with no codes of ethics. They'll know what you eat, what websites you visit, what books and movies you consume and what medications you buy.
Apps on your smartphone can access your contacts, track your movements, and might even check your daily calendar. Others can learn when you travel out of town, what hotels you stay at and what companies you are meeting with. In fact, I spoke with one person who runs a successful business that offers a service that mines public information on Facebook and LinkedIn to track the sales personnel of her clients' competitors so they can compete more effectively.
We can't blame these companies alone. We're all guilty of sharing this information to get something in return. We post information on social sites to make business contacts and promote ourselves. We use Google Maps on our cellphones to get traffic information in return for letting Google to track us. We use supermarket loyalty cards to get discounts, allowing them to know what we buy.
Is there any relief in site? Several government agencies, including the FCC, are investigating and proposing a Do Not Track Registry, much like the Do Not Call Registry. And we know how effective that's been!
But I wouldn't look to the government for help, since government agencies are committing some of the most egregious invasive activities in the name of protecting us from terrorists. As we all know by now, a local resident, John Tyner, made national news for refusing to submit to TSA's new "privacy-invading, genital-picture-taking, radiation-delivering back-scatter imaging machines," as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic aptly describes it.
Tyner refused the alternative, a personal full-body pat down that including touching his personal parts, saying, "If you touch my junk, I'm gonna have you arrested."
So his choice was either to subject himself to revealing X-rays or be groped. Tyner decided to leave the airport, unable to board his flight. He then posted a cell phone audio recording of his half-hour encounter in Terminal 2. That recording has become viral and has aroused a huge protest among travelers and airline employees.
And in what can only be described as a really dumb move, San Diego TSA director Michael Aguilar called a press conference to threaten Tyner with an $11, 000 fine for leaving the airport without completing the screening. Yes, this is the way to demonstrate TSA's competency.
TSA's defense of these machines has been simplistic without any serious discussion: that body scans and pat-downs make flying safer. But there's significant evidence from other governments and security experts that these scanners are not as effective, nor as save, as they claim. And while they say the images are immediately destroyed, the U.S. Marshals operating a similar scanner in the Orlando, Fla., courthouse saved images of full-body scans that have recently appeared on the web. The TSA has also failed to anticipate and address the intrusive pat downs of breast-cancer survivors with mastectomies, and toddlers that have been taught not to allow anyone to touch them.
TSA has gone too far. They're just putting on a display to make us feel safer by displaying more of us. They're using expensive technology while ignoring simpler, safer, and more common sense approaches. That really questions their claims about keeping us as safe as possible. This is not an agency that's earned our confidence.
It still doesn't inspect all of the cargo that's carried by passenger aircraft. It has refused for nine years to implement a trusted traveler plan that would provide frequent travelers with a secure ID after performing a thorough background check. It's something that U.S. Customs offers to frequent travelers when they enter the country. And by doing so they'd be able to do a better job by screening those that really pose a threat. After all, our Congress members are all exempt from these screenings.
Until a few days ago, in response to huge pressure, TSA insisted on screening pilots, the very people to whom we entrust our lives every time we fly. A pilot could certainly take a plane down even without a penknife or liquids that they were searched for. This is just another example of the flawed logic that further undermines our confidence in the TSA.
So perhaps the solution is to have Facebook and Google perform airport security. They really understand technology and don't need to pat us down to know all about us. They know where we've been and where we're going, and whom we associate with. They can even do it online. And they have a lot more information about each of us than the TSA ever will!
Reprinted with permission for the San Diego Transcript (www.sddt.com)
Follow Philip G. Baker on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pbaker