Imagine life without our smartphones, tablets, digital televisions and the Internet. We would still be stuck in the early 90s. We are now connected to so many devices that with a few mouse clicks, swipes, and scans, we can buy products, services, link up with social media, communicate with others from around the world and connect to the many Apps that now arrange our lives.
The prevalence of our life in cyberspace can also come at a cost. The power of the digital age allows for the efficient and inexpensive collection of information, which can be given away freely. This questions the idea of privacy, not just on the web, but within the devices we use daily. As everything is now out in the open, online, do we have the right to be left alone? Do we still have privacy?
Trust No One?
This year, for the first time, the Census went online in Australia. The problem wasn’t just the outages on the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Census site, but the retention of data, the names, and addresses of individuals, to be kept by the ABS for four years rather than the usual 18 months. Those opposed for privacy reasons were Green’s Senators Scott Ludlam, Janet Rice, Sarah Hanson-Young, and Independent Senator, Nick Xenophon. The senators vowed to omit their names from the Census form. Apparently, the recent privacy breaches affecting the US State Department, CIA and the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection were examples of how data collection can go wrong, according to Scott Ludlam. He said to the press, “If they weren’t able to prevent themselves from being hacked…There’s nothing about the ABS that gives you confidence that it couldn’t happen in the future.”
Nick Xenophon also commented, “The ABS had failed to make a compelling case for why names were necessary and ‘trashing’ the right to privacy.” The ABS had asserted that they had security measures to secure data and prevent the disclosure of information. Chris Berg from the Institute of Public Affairs rejects this. He said, “There is no such thing as 100 percent safely secured information…No matter what firewalls the ABS places around access and matching (of names), it is a truism that any data that can be used usefully can be used illegitimately.”
The fear of privacy breaches has come at a cost to the Australian Government, where trust by citizens is at an all-time low, especially in the context of increased citizen surveillance.
Metadata Retention - The New Face of Surveillance
In October last year a new law was legislated by the federal government that allowed every phone call, text message, and email to be tracked under a metadata retention scheme. The reason for the scheme is to protect Australia against organised crime and terrorism. Many opposed it as an invasion of privacy. In light of new technologies, some attributed the idea as a good thing.
Edward Snowden entered the debate and indicated that the new laws would not stop any major crime or incident from happening, especially terrorism. Snowden said, “They’re not public safety programs. They’re spying programs.” Snowden then added, “The question that we as a society have to ask, are our collective rights worth a small advantage in our ability to spy?”
With the new scheme in place, Internet and Mobile Service providers will hold onto the person’s metadata for two years.
Some of the types of data to be captured are –
- Name, Address and Billing Information.
- Telephone Number
- IP Address
- Email Address
- Date, Time and Duration of communication
- Service used (Social Media, SMS)
- Location of Device.
The access to this information is given to –
- Commonwealth, State and Territory Police, Major Crime and Anti-corruption
- Australian Customs and Border Protection
While we are monitored for our protection, everything else we do online is easily tracked, hacked and viewed. Privacy seems to be now non-existent.
Hackers – Invading our Privacy
Currently, digital hacking has become easier than ever and finding information, using privacy-invading tools, is lucrative for many. Remote Access Trojan (RAT) malware is openly available to interested wannabe hackers. There is an art-house type film that shocked and worried many. The film, Ratter (2015), was based on a short film about a college age girl who has her three devices hacked - her phone, smart-TV and laptop. The character is watched and heard, to the point of being stalked, as the information she discloses in her private and social moments gives the hacker clues to her movements and whereabouts. In reality, it’s not too different. After seeing it, many would be worried at the thought of their own connected devices being so easily hacked into like the film portrayed.
RATs is a malicious code that could be well hidden within photographs, documents, videos and music. These are the easiest ways to trick someone into downloading the malware or Trojan onto the computer. Once it gets access to the computer, the simple piece of code will allow the hacker to perform all sorts of tasks. The hacker can turn on the webcam to spy, or perhaps send emails to a list of contacts.
Riskier is the RAT attack that can use a computer and devices to harm others. There has been an increase in people who have accidently clicked on a malware link and have opened their computers and devices to the anonymous ‘criminals’ who have used blackmail, or spying into one’s personal life from the data stored on their computer.
As this is now the new world with our ever changing technology, privacy is not yet a thing of the past. There are still technical options to protect your privacy.
Privacy Mode is a feature in web browsers to disable browsing history and the web cache. The web browser Chrome has it as Incognito, while Internet Explorer features their Privacy Mode as InPrivate Browsing. This form of browsing allows the person to search without storing local data that could be retrieved at a later date. It also disables storage of data in cookies and Flash cookies. However, it is still possible to identify websites by associating the IP address at the web server.
There are many benefits using the Privacy Mode feature. It prevents the users of the computer to find one’s search history and it disables autofill and other personal information from appearing automatically. It also suppresses log-in information that you don’t want to save for later.
There are, however, many other ways for privacy in a technology connected the world, and that is the VPN - The Virtual Private Network. A VPN helps hide your internet traffic by encrypting the connection. It creates a secure tunnel over the Internet between the computer, smartphone or tablet, and whatever website or app one is trying to access. The benefits to the VPN are enhanced security and privacy.
Enterprises have used VPN technology for years, to secure that corporate traffic. It’s a positive turn to see this technology reach the general public.
Privacy – The End
The more time we spend online, including the use of our devices, the more we are offered convenience in exchange for our privacy. Supermarkets have loyalty cards, to track what we buy. Everything we buy on our credit cards leaves a trail. Google knows when we have booked or are thinking of booking a holiday. Everything we do online can be monitored. Some information is kept sealed, but it can be easily hacked.
Privacy is not yet dead. We just need to have clear rules on privacy, security, and confidentiality. Let’s get started.