Age article on Data Collection on 30 May 2013 and reference to my presentation at MIT on 5 May 2013

June 3, 2013 |

Cynthia Karena, a Fairfax journalist, spoke with me about privacy and data collection just before I left for Massachusetts to present a paper at MIT8.  The presentation at the MIT was on the topic of Managing your Identity On Line.

In Data collection a growing threat to our privacy Ms Karena addresses the issue of data aggregation and use of algorithims in tracking individuals on line.  She quoted some of our discussion in what was a broad ranging discussion. Some of the issues raised in this article I covered in my presentation in the United States.

The article provides:

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg assures us that users of the ubiquitous social media site are happy with ads tailored to them, but others are less sanguine about the use of Facebook details for commercial use, not to mention the rest of our personal information that’s sloshing around the internet.

Whenever we interact with a computer, whether filling in an online form or survey, looking at a website, sending an email, using a credit card, posting to Facebook or Twitter, ”Liking” something or using apps on our smartphones, we are leaving an online trail; digital footprints. Paper trails of information are slow to piece together, but aggregating digital information about you is much easier. Why is this done? To form an image of you.

Personal information derived from tracking digital footprints is used to make assumptions about the buying habits and behaviour of groups of people.

But, more often, marketers are interested in tracking individuals – by age, sex, or product preferences – to design targeted advertising, says Dr Terry Beed, of the University of Sydney Business School.

The information you post on social media isn’t just for your friends, no matter how strict your privacy settings. Facebook, for one, openly acknowledges it uses ”the things you do and share, including demographics, Likes and interests, to show ads that are more relevant to you”.

We are not Facebook’s customers, we are its product, says media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff. Facebook is using you; it is looking at how to monetise your personal information, he says.

Zuckerberg famously declared in 2010, ”privacy is no longer a social norm”.

Facebook changes its privacy policies on a whim, says Peter Clarke, a barrister who spoke recently about managing online identities at a privacy conference at MIT. ”What was once private information may not be any more,” he says.

Coupled with other data, researchers at Cambridge University have come up with models to predict personal attributes from Facebook Likes.

A similar experiment was done at MIT that predicted whether people were gay, based on who they had friended on Facebook, Clarke says.

This explosion in the collection of personal data poses a growing threat to privacy, Beed says. ”If information is passed on to others without my knowledge, then that’s a breach of my privacy.”

The Privacy Act allows you to access any information about yourself and know what is being done with it, he adds. But the notion of privacy regarding our personal information is becoming lost in the rush to use social media, along with an avalanche of interesting and useful apps. We sign up to use apps, and often reveal personal information without thinking, ticking the lengthy terms and conditions box without reading it, because we just want to use the service.

”Apps are not designed for your use and pleasure, but to provide aggregation of personal information that can be sold off,” says Milton Baar, an information-security lecturer at Macquarie University. ”That’s why they’re so cheap or free.”

The Brewster app, for example, creates an address book from accessing your social media contact lists – you have to give it permission. If you do, your friends’ details are also stored by Brewster – no matter how strict their privacy settings, and without them being aware their information has been passed on to a third party, which says ”from time to time, we may approve commercial use of the Service through corporate partnerships and agreements”.

It’s too late if you delete your account, because the app’s servers already have the information.

Apps are useful and entertaining, but if they use your information for marketing or other purposes they should tell you, in plain English, what they are doing with it and why, Beed says.

Along with social media and online apps, companies are trying to capture your personal information, seeking to identify buying patterns and predict responses to direct marketing and promotional campaigns. There is nothing inherently wrong with this but the fear is that people have lost control of their personal information.

”Data that might be related to incomes, debt levels or health profiles could be gathered and on-sold without any warning to the consumer,” Beed says.

The Australian Privacy Act has been amended and, from March 2014, organisations need to ensure they manage the personal information of individuals in an open and transparent way.

”There should be a clear statement of how and why the information is being used,” Beed says. ”If information is aggregated from different sources, you have the right to know that you are a part of that. It is your right to be able to access information about you and have it corrected. You can ask why an organisation is collecting information about you, and what are they doing with it.”

Ways to safeguard your privacy

Social media sites want as much information about you as possible, but you can minimise what they see.

1. Understand and use your privacy settings.

2. Don’t let other search engines link to your profile; select ”Off” in privacy settings.

3. Don’t post too much personal information; be circumspect.

4. Consider creating a pseudonym so you can present an anonymous private face that can’t be linked back to your name.

5. Minimise use of the ”Like” button.

6. Download the Ghostery browser tool to block cookies and prevent tracking.

7. Minimise personal information when filling in online forms or downloading apps. If it’s not mandatory, don’t put it in.

8. Don’t use loyalty cards.

9. Disable geo-tagging on your phone’s photos.

10. Ask organisations why they want information about you.


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