Online Data Privacy in the Digital Age

By Steve Byers

Data mining and GPS TrackingIt hit me as I was reading about Facebook’s newest option, the “Places” feature that allows you to let your friends know where you are using your smart phone’s GPS signal that my reaction was different than what I, or Facebook, must have expected. It was a basic distrust of my data.

Sure, as Rob Pegoraro wrote, you have to activate the feature (Facebook seems to have belatedly realized that we want opt-in), and it’s reasonably difficult to do so it probably won’t happen by accident. But I have two big concerns immediately.

The first is that it won’t take long for someone to be assaulted by a stalker or someone else who wormed their way onto a “Friends” list (do you personally know all your “Friends”; I allow former students to “friend” me and don’t keep up with many of them). We’ve already read of homes being burglarized by “Friends” who learned on Facebook that someone was on vacation.

The second is my long-time paranoia creeping through.  Sure, we have to turn the feature on — supposedly. But how do we know it isn’t being misused by Facebook itself (or some of its employees). We know IRS workers have accessed politicians’ files, and that’s a felony. We know of the school in Pennsylvania that used the laptops it handed out to spy on students.

It’s the same as providers (or Google) tracking my keystrokes. Sure most people won’t misuse these powers. But if something’s possible, it will be used.

We’re well past the point where we need legislative action to protect our privacy. I’m contacting the offices of Senator Kohl and Senator Feingold, and urging them to push for privacy protection before any of my concerns become real.

Steve Byers is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Journalism at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.

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