Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part column series on internet privacy. See next week's Sunday Business Journal for part two.
The internet certainly isn't what it was when I first got involved back in the early 1990s.
What started mainly as a way to freely exchange information has morphed into a raging, multi-billion dollar money-grabbing machine. Few people realize how their lives are being exploited every time they do something online.
Chief among the culprits is the harvesting and selling of personal information using internet tracking trickery. While the screen of your digital device may hide it, every time you access email, texting or a website, scores of tiny software robots leap into action, devouring information about you and building a profile of your every move.
Who you send messages to, how long they are, how often you send them, what websites you visit, how long you are there, what you click on, what pictures you view, what stories you read, what ads you see, do you scroll up or down, what other websites connect to the one you are looking at, where do you go next, what do you buy, what's your credit history, what's your education, have you ever filed an insurance claim, have you ever had a "domestic dispute," do you pay bills online, who are your friends, who are their friends, where do you live, do you own firearms, do you tweet, what are your political and religious inclinations, do you use alcohol or tobacco, what's your financial life like, what's your medical history, do you have a criminal background, what are your hobbies, what car do you drive, has your car been detected by highway cameras or toll gates, do you have investment accounts, are you male, female, married, single, what are your sexual preferences, what food do you like, what movies and music do you enjoy, do you have children, what are their lives like ... Information about everything you could ever imagine and some things you couldn't is collected.
What if someone constantly followed you around, photographing your every move, spying on you, your family and friends, selling the photographs to whoever would pay? That's exactly what internet tracking is like. Worse still, you'll never make a penny from the sale of pictures and mountains of information which ethically and morally belong to you.
From this surveillance, massive computer databases are created containing countless millions of dossiers on literally everyone on Earth, or, as close to everyone as the data brokers can get. Some of this information is used for benign purposes, like advertising. Other data is used to "enhance" your experience on sites like Facebook. Other databases are exploited by Internet criminals bent on stealing your money.
These databases also hold tremendous, behind-the-scenes power over our lives, as governments, businesses, law enforcement agencies, educational institutions, banks, insurance companies, health care providers and others make decisions based on automated database conclusions, rather than who we actually are, or what we actually say, think and do in "real" life.
As observed in an article titled "Facebook is using you," from The New York Times, "You might be refused health insurance based on a Google search you did about a medical condition. You might be shown a credit card with a lower credit limit, not because of your credit history, but because of your race, sex or ZIP code or the types of websites you visit."
Employers now routinely base hiring and firing decisions on information, true or not, sold to them by giant data brokers. Schools, law enforcement groups and banks purchase online data to determine who should be disciplined, who should go to jail or who should get a loan. Political, religious and work-based opinions expressed online are culled to decide promotions, security clearances, membership in exclusive clubs, fraternities and sororities, granting of licenses, determining child custody, and to single out trouble-makers for "elevated observation."
The accuracy of information contained in internet databases is of grave concern. The Federal Trade Commission has determined that almost 25 percent of all credit reports contain flawed information. Giant data brokers like Acxiom have disclosed that 30 percent of their data may be inaccurate. Thousands of people have wrongly been branded as criminals because of errors in crime databases.
With the current push to move all medical records out of doctor's offices and onto the web, it is sobering that caregivers readily admit millions of digital records contain incorrect patient information, records which have already led to mistaken prescriptions, operations, medical procedures and death.
Even with all that in mind, people who express concern about online tracking, privacy and surveillance are often regarded as paranoid weirdos. I can't help that, but I sure can help what information about me lives on the internet.
Next week, I will show you simple, step-by-step instructions on how you can secure your phones, tablets and computers to limit how your activities are tracked across the internet.
Dave Moore has been fixing computers in Oklahoma since 1984. Founder of the nonprofit Internet Safety Group Ltd., he also teaches Internet safety community training workshops. He can be reached at 405-919-9901 or internetsafetygroup.com