Does your digital footprint expose your secrets to the wrong people?
National Public Radio and the Center for Investigative Reporting recently presented a four part series about privacy (online and off) called, Your Digital Trail. To get the gist of how little privacy you have as a result of the social media, credit cards and mobile technology you use, watch this accurate and eye-opening explanation of how you are constantly being tracked.
Marketers, data aggregators, advertisers, the government and even criminals have access to a vivid picture of who you are. NPR calls it your digital trail; for years, I’ve referred to it as your digital footprint. Let’s take quick look of what makes up your digital footprint.
What is your digital footprint?
Just like a car leaving exhaust as it runs, you leave digital traces of who you are without even knowing it. Here is a partial list of the ways that you are tracked daily: cookies on your computer, apps on your smartphone or tablet, your IP address, internet-enabled devices, search engine terms, mobile phone geo-location, license-plate scanners, email and phone record sniffing, facial recognition systems, online dating profiles, social networking profiles, posts, likes, and shares, mass-transit smart cards, credit card usage, loyalty cards, medical records, music preferences and talk shows you listen to on smartphone apps, ATM withdrawals, wire transfers and the ever-present, always rolling surveillance cameras that tell what subway you rode, what store you shopped in, what street you crossed and at what time. Is there anything, you might ask, that others don’t know about you? Not much.
What happens to your data that is tracked?
According to NPR, a remarkable amount of your digital trail is available to local law enforcement officers, IRS investigators, the FBI and private attorneys. And in some cases, it can be used against you.
For example, many people don’t know their medical records are available to investigators and private attorneys. According to the NPR story, “Many Americans are under the impression that their medical records are protected by privacy laws, but investigators and private attorneys enjoy special access there.” In some cases, they don’t even need a search warrant, just a subpoena. In fact, some states consider private attorneys to be officers of the court, so lawyers can issue subpoenas for your phone texts, credit card records, even your digital medical files, despite the HIPAA law.
Kevin Bankston, senior attorney with the nonpartisan Center for Democracy and Technology, explains that the laws that regulate the government regarding privacy were written back in the analog age, so the government often doesn’t have many legal restraints. When the Fourth Amendment guaranteeing our rights to certain privacies was written, our Founding Fathers weren’t thinking about computers and smartphones!
Specifically, the Fourth Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” In the “old days” police would have had to obtain a search warrant (showing probable cause) and search your home for evidence of criminal activity.
But since the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Supreme Court and other courts have consistently ruled that if you have already shared some piece of information with somebody else, a warrant is no longer needed. So now when you buy something with a credit card (letting your credit card company know what you’ve purchased), or drive through an intersection with license plate scanners (telling law enforcement where you’ve been) or Like something on Facebook (letting the social network and everyone else know your preferences), you have, in essence, given the government (as well as corporations and criminals) the right to gather information about you, whether you are guilty of anything or not. So much for probable cause.
In this age of cloud computing, the issue becomes even more, well, clouded. Take the case of a protester arrested during an Occupy Wall Street Demonstration in New York City. The New York DA subpoenaed all of his tweets over a three and a half month period. Of course, his lawyer objected, but the judge in the case ruled that the proprietary interests of the tweets belonged to Twitter, Inc., not the defendant!
How can we defend our digital footprint against privacy violations?
My takeaway from the NPR piece? We are so overwhelmed by the tsunami of privacy erosion going on, by the collection, use and abuse of our digital footprints, that the surveillance economy we have created will only be resolved by broad-stroke, legislative action. Until that happens, corporations, criminals and even our government will consume all of the data we allow them to. And so will we.
John Sileo is an expert on digital footprint and a highly engaging speaker on internet privacy, identity theft and technology. He is CEO of The Sileo Group, which helps organizations to protect the privacy that drives their profitability. His recent engagements include presentations at The Pentagon, Visa, Homeland Security and Northrop Grumman as well as media appearances on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business. Contact him directly on 800.258.8076.