Shaun’s Musings: The Internet and Privacy

 

My father bought the house’s first computer in 1995. Before then, I had used a rickety old typewriter with a flying ‘g’ that seemed to eat the ink cartridges faster than I could replace them. Happy with my father’s new purchase, I set to work on writing a novel. We had AOL in those days, but the Internet was not anywhere near where it is today. On the first day I started using the Internet, my father sat down with me and gave me a good piece of advice that I have never forgotten. “The Internet is a public place,” he told me. “I don’t care what website says it’s private. Automatically assume that everything you write, buy, and look at online will still be visible twenty years from now.”

That advice came in handy years later when I lost an entire manuscript I had saved since I was sixteen. Remembering that I had shared the file with some friends in order to gain some feedback, I was quickly able to find and download it. The date? May, 1997, just weeks before I graduated high school.

I had heard about Ashley Madison, the affair website, back in about 2003, and it became a sort of running joke between my friends and I, who were single, very geeky, and computer nerds. We joked about setting up fake profiles to see if anyone would be interested in a couple of twentysomethings that had yet to get their rocks off, but in actuality I think we were all a bit surprised that the Internet had suddenly become this gateway, this way of being able to hide your true identity or persona. One anonymous individual posted an article about his affair through Ashley Madison, and was extremely unapologetic about it. Of course, he posted it under the name anonymous, which tells us all something.

While many of us fight for deeper encryption and increased security, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security desire very much for applications and programs to have a “back door” that allows them to monitor computers and users, all under the guise of cracking down on domestic terrorism. As a writer, I have to wonder how my Internet searches are taken: I am working on two novels right now, one that takes place a few miles north of my house, and one that focuses on an uprising and an eventual revolution overtaking the United States. When all else fails, I go to the library or Barnes & Noble for military information, especially that of a sensitive nature.

People often argue that they have nothing to hide, so they do not worry about Internet privacy. However, that is like saying that the First Amendment doesn’t mean anything to you because you don’t have anything to say. A silent majority is always trumped by a vocal minority. The trouble is, today so many people aren’t aware of, or don’t care about, the idea of privacy: It has become one of those long-lost concepts. We have entered a stage where the up-and-coming generation cannot recall an age when they did not have technology, and they did not experience the uneasy peaceful times before September 11th, 2001. Often, teenagers will say they are simply playing video games, and as a result they really aren’t doing anything that warrants scrutiny.

I’m not concerned about Internet privacy because I’m doing something wrong. It is the fear of doing something wrong that concerns me. When we do not search on the Internet for information about military terms, conspiracy theories, or even our favorite United States warship out of concern that the FBI or some other entity is watching us, freedom has failed and tyranny has taken over.

The erosion of our freedoms has been slow and calls to mind the metaphor of a frog, placed in water that’s slowly boiling, failing to realize it is being cooked to death. We are in danger of having our voices silenced not through the banning of free speech, but through the fear of what might happen if we exercise it. This is, of course, coupled with intense stigmatizing as politically incorrect of anyone who says anything against the prevailing views, but that is another discussion for another day.

The Internet has solved many problems. We are able to find information that once would have sent us scrambling to the dictionary or to the library. My doctoral dissertation took six weeks of research, as opposed to six months for my masters’ thesis. However, it has also created problems. The ease with which we can post information on the Internet also makes it easier for us to be monitored.

The fate of a future United States President will depend on a Tweet or Facebook post that he or she made as a teenager.

 

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  1. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SDCurran

    Whiskey Sam:

    S.D. Curran:

    Whiskey Sam:I’m most surprised that the generation that came of age in the 90s when much of this was new and available for the first time (email, chat rooms, message boards, webcams) apparently didn’t pass the lessons learned on to their younger siblings or children. The idea that there are folks posing as things they are not, identity thieves, young men conning naive girls into sending nude photos, data leaks where your private info is dispersed to the public, should not be a surprise today. They’ve been with us ever since the internet became available. Sometimes it feels like no one has been paying attention for the last 25 years.

    This is to say nothing of the epidemic of men posing as prepube girls on games like SecondLife and World of Warcraft. I know a few people who have done that for years.

    There was a long-running joke (or word of caution) in AOL chat rooms in the late 90s where you just assumed all of the women were men.

    LOL! Yeah, I heard that when I was a kid. When I was fifteen I recall one chat room on AOL where this ‘woman’ would start chatting with the boys in the room, eventually leading to cybersex. The guy got made pretty quick. Disgusting.

    • #31
  2. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SDCurran

    drlorentz:

    Misthiocracy:I use Epic Browser, myself. It has its own built-in search engine.

    On other browsers, I use the Disconnect and Disconnect Search plugins.

    The side benefit of this sorts of software solutions is how they speed up browsing, since you don’t get all the tracking ‘ware slowing you down.

    I just got the Disconnect plugin for my browser – highly recommended. It blocks and gives tab-by-tab tracking request data.

    Can you provide a link?

    • #32
  3. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    S.D. Curran:

    drlorentz:

    Misthiocracy:I use Epic Browser, myself. It has its own built-in search engine.

    On other browsers, I use the Disconnect and Disconnect Search plugins.

    The side benefit of this sorts of software solutions is how they speed up browsing, since you don’t get all the tracking ‘ware slowing you down.

    I just got the Disconnect plugin for my browser – highly recommended. It blocks and gives tab-by-tab tracking request data.

    Can you provide a link?

    The Disconnect link that Misthiocracy provided does not lead to plugins in an obvious way. To find that, I used DuckDuckGo to search for the plugin specific to my browser. Alternatively, go here.

    Go forth in privacy!

    • #33
  4. Gödel's Ghost Inactive
    Gödel's Ghost
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    Whiskey Sam:There was a long-running joke (or word of caution) in AOL chat rooms in the late 90s where you just assumed all of the women were menFBI agents.

    • #34
  5. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    Great Ghost of Gödel:

    Whiskey Sam:There was a long-running joke (or word of caution) in AOL chat rooms in the late 90s where you just assumed all of the women were FBI agents.

    This is why I can never run for public office.

    • #35
  6. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Whiskey Sam:

    Great Ghost of Gödel:

    Whiskey Sam:There was a long-running joke (or word of caution) in AOL chat rooms in the late 90s where you just assumed all of the women were FBI agents.

    This is why I can never run for public office.

    Is that the only reason? ;)

    • #36
  7. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SDCurran

    Whiskey Sam:

    Great Ghost of Gödel:

    Whiskey Sam:There was a long-running joke (or word of caution) in AOL chat rooms in the late 90s where you just assumed all of the women were FBI agents.

    This is why I can never run for public office.

    Really? That I didn’t know…

    • #37
  8. Whiskey Sam Inactive
    Whiskey Sam
    @WhiskeySam

    drlorentz:

    Whiskey Sam:

    Great Ghost of Gödel:

    Whiskey Sam:There was a long-running joke (or word of caution) in AOL chat rooms in the late 90s where you just assumed all of the women were FBI agents.

    This is why I can never run for public office.

    Is that the only reason? ;)

    It’s the only one they know about, at least.

    • #38
  9. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SDCurran

    Whiskey Sam:

    drlorentz:

    Whiskey Sam:

    Great Ghost of Gödel:

    Whiskey Sam:There was a long-running joke (or word of caution) in AOL chat rooms in the late 90s where you just assumed all of the women were FBI agents.

    This is why I can never run for public office.

    Is that the only reason? ;)

    It’s the only one they know about, at least.

    Everyone has a few skeletons in their closet.

    • #39
  10. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SDCurran

    drlorentz:

    S.D. Curran:

    drlorentz:

    Misthiocracy:I use Epic Browser, myself. It has its own built-in search engine.

    On other browsers, I use the Disconnect and Disconnect Search plugins.

    The side benefit of this sorts of software solutions is how they speed up browsing, since you don’t get all the tracking ‘ware slowing you down.

    I just got the Disconnect plugin for my browser – highly recommended. It blocks and gives tab-by-tab tracking request data.

    Can you provide a link?

    The Disconnect link that Misthiocracy provided does not lead to plugins in an obvious way. To find that, I used DuckDuckGo to search for the plugin specific to my browser. Alternatively, go here.

    Go forth in privacy!

    Mucho graci! I appreciate it. It’s already picking up data requests and shutting them down as we speak!

    • #40
  11. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Whiskey Sam:

    Great Ghost of Gödel:

    Whiskey Sam:There was a long-running joke (or word of caution) in AOL chat rooms in the late 90s where you just assumed all of the women were FBI agents.

    This is why I can never run for public office.

    I doubt the NSA got its act together in time to start archiving AOL chat rooms.

    • #41
  12. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SDCurran

    I doubt it. The Internet was too new, and I’m not sure that many people foresaw the explosion that would take place in terms of online communication. heck, I remember back in 2005 when I wanted to go to an online college, my parents were worried about legitimacy.

    • #42
  13. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SDCurran

    I wonder when the first documented case of someone being tracked online or prosecuted for something online happened…

    • #43
  14. Howellis Inactive
    Howellis
    @ManWiththeAxe

    S.D. Curran: I think we were all a bit surprised that the Internet had suddenly become this gateway, this way of being able to hide your true identity or persona. One anonymous individual posted an article about his affair through Ashley Madison, and was extremely unapologetic about it. Of course, he posted it under the name anonymous, which tells us all something.

    What a wimp.

    • #44
  15. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @SDCurran

    I agree. If you’re going to be proud of something like this, you have to go all the way. I suspect he is really shaking in his boots right now. If I did something like that, I would lose my best friends…

    • #45
  16. TeamAmerica Member
    TeamAmerica
    @TeamAmerica

    I use the browser Palemoon. Would Disconnect be compatible with it? The sites I linked to only mention Firefox.

    • #46
  17. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    TeamAmerica:I use the browser Palemoon. Would Disconnect be compatible with it? The sites I linked to only mention Firefox.

    Since Palemoon is a fork of Firefox, I’d expect the Firefox plugin to work. It’s worth a shot.

    • #47
  18. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    A decent discussion of this topic is in The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet. It may be a bit dated but covers the basic ground. According to the blurb, the author is

    the John Marshall Harlan Research Professor of Law at the George Washington University Law School and an internationally-known expert in privacy law.

    I read this book back in 2013; it seemed timely then.

    • #48
  19. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    TeamAmerica:I use the browser Palemoon. Would Disconnect be compatible with it? The sites I linked to only mention Firefox.

    I use Pale Moon with Disconnect on my Linux laptop. Works fine.

    • #49
  20. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    Okay, so what about the idea that if you are who you are—online or offline—your boring self will be lost in a sea of other boring selves?

    Also: If you “out” your own skeletons, will anyone else bother to out them?

    The nitwit who posts her sorority-rave pics on the internet in 2015 may be faced with them during her run for the presidency n 2054…but didn’t Romney have to explain his boarding-school behavior during the presidential contest? And while it may be that Obama got a pass for his drug use because the media is liberal, it may also be that he didn’t keep it a secret, or deny it when it came up. It was there, in black and white, in his memoir.

    Hiding in plain sight?

    How much more did privacy matter when there were more peccadilloes considered worthy of scandal? (Drunkenness, adultery, divorce, homosexuality…the blackmailer’s lot must be a sorry one these days?)

    • #50
  21. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Kate Braestrup: How much more did privacy matter when there were more peccadilloes considered worthy of scandal? (Drunkenness, adultery, divorce, homosexuality…the blackmailer’s lot must be a sorry one these days?)

    It’s not so much that there are fewer subjects of scandal; it’s that the subjects have changed. Consider the case of Brendan Eich, the former CEO of Mozilla. He made a donation in support of a proposition in California. It’s not like he was supporting some kind of wingnut political position; the proposition was approved by voters. Yet, in spite of a groveling apology, he still had to go.

    Once upon a time, homosexuality was scandalous. Now, making a political donation in opposition to homosexual marriage is scandalous. The blackmailer can still ply his trade. Plus ça change…

    • #51
  22. Karen Inactive
    Karen
    @Karen

    “I’m not concerned about Internet privacy because I’m doing something wrong. It is the fear of doing something wrong that concerns me. When we do not search on the Internet for information about military terms, conspiracy theories, or even our favorite United States warship out of concern that the FBI or some other entity is watching us, freedom has failed and tyranny has taken over.”

    Yeh, this is a bit of an irrational fear. At one time, Tom Clancy had a state room on the GW (CVN – 73) while doing research. I think US intelligence hasn’t flagged you. I don’t think your internet searches will get anyone hot and bothered at the federal level. And FYI, Clancy got most of his info and great stories the old-fashioned way by talking to people who were actually familiar with the subjects, like retired senior Navy officers. If you want to write a novel about the military, you’ll get more insider info with a bottle of bourbon than a keyboard.

    • #52
  23. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Karen : Yeh, this is a bit of an irrational fear.

    I wouldn’t be so sure about that. There was the celebrated case of some family members who did a search of pressure-cookers and backpacks after the Boston Marathon bombing. Next thing they knew, the cops were at the door, specifically the Joint Terrorism Task Force.

    Sure, it’s unlikely, but how would you like to get that surprise visit? It could have turned ugly.

    • #53
  24. Karen Inactive
    Karen
    @Karen

    Drlorentz – I’ve been interviewed several times by folks – all unannounced- doing federal background checks on friends, family members and neighbors for security clearances. They ask all kinds of personal information about the candidates and me, so I don’t see the cause for alarm. The guys with JTTF were doing what they were supposed to do. It would’ve gotten ugly if the family had acted stupidly, which is always a concern.

    • #54
  25. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Karen :Drlorentz – I’ve been interviewed several times by folks – all unannounced- doing federal background checks on friends, family members and neighbors for security clearances. They ask all kinds of personal information about the candidates and me, so I don’t see the cause for alarm. The guys with JTTF were doing what they were supposed to do. It would’ve gotten ugly if the family had acted stupidly, which is always a concern.

    There’s a big difference between being interviewed by someone from OPM for a background check and an unannounced visit by a bunch of guys with guns pulling up to your house in SUVs. Perhaps your experiences are different but when they come to see me for a background check (at work, not at home), they make an appointment and are never armed.

    • #55
  26. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Nick Stuart:Something I find really creepy are the multiple choice security questions my bank asks for me to verify my login when I login from a new computer: “Which of these people do you know?” “Which county were you living in in 1968?” “Which of the these cars did you ever own?”

    How the [CoC-redacted] does my bank have access to every car I ever owned? [Rhetorical question, I suppose it has something to do with their access to credit-rating agency databases].

    Yes, I have been absolutely freaked out by that. My bank has asked me similar questions.

    The credit-agency database explains the question about the car, but doesn’t explain how it knows the name of my father’s ex-wife. Not my mother — his second wife.

    • #56
  27. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Karen : They ask all kinds of personal information about the candidates and me, so I don’t see the cause for alarm.

    Well, unless it alarms you that this information is now in the hands of Chinese bureaucrats who are studying the best way to exploit it. But maybe you’re not the worrying sort …

    • #57
  28. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Kate Braestrup: Okay, so what about the idea that if you are who you are—online or offline—your boring self will be lost in a sea of other boring selves?

    How about the idea that you’d best make yourself boring so as not to stand out?

    What does it do to a whole society when everyone knows this?

    • #58
  29. drlorentz Member
    drlorentz
    @drlorentz

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Karen : They ask all kinds of personal information about the candidates and me, so I don’t see the cause for alarm.

    Well, unless it alarms you that this information is now in the hands of Chinese bureaucrats who are studying the best way to exploit it. But maybe you’re not the worrying sort …

    Yeah, and there is that. In a burst of clueless irony, we were told of the breach by the cognizant Federal agency, then warned against compromising personal information and advised how to better protect ourselves. I had to laugh. Maybe I should be giving the advice since I’m more successful at this task than they are.

    • #59
  30. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Kate Braestrup: How much more did privacy matter when there were more peccadilloes considered worthy of scandal? (Drunkenness, adultery, divorce, homosexuality…the blackmailer’s lot must be a sorry one these days?)

    Have you followed the story of Tim Hunt?

    Google his name, if not.

    • #60
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