Billions of everyday objects are being reborn as “smart” devices with IP addresses and Internet access, from coffee makers to ski passes. Such intelligence could produce amazing advances to modern living, but it has a privacy downside: digital tracks.
Tech companies are creating tools that mine these digital tracks (also called digital footprints). Mining turns tracks into insights such as how consumers are feeling about newfangled technologies or how voters are reacting to political issues.
For instance, IBM's sells a tool called BigSheets that lets users mine social networks for all sorts of complex searches. It can even do “sentiment analysis” indicating how consumers feel about a brand (like, hate, love). It does so by sifting through enormous data sets from social media sites like Twitter , Facebook, Epinions, etc., and analyzing keywords.
BigSheets uses Twitter to analyze consumer sentiments on Android or BlackBerry or iPhone.
Digital tracks in themselves are not bad. But privacy advocates warn of the risks to individuals. Imagine BigSheets in the hands of investigators sifting through your social networks, your Internet searches, your car's infotainment systems, GPS activity on your phone and so on.
Some of your tracks are difficult if not impossible to control. Your name, address, home value, criminal records are accessible via databases in the public domain. Sites such as WhitePages.com and PublicRecords.com sell background checks based on data from public records like court cases, business registrars, state records and more.
Many small digital tracks lead to one big footprint that reveals a lot about you.
Some digital footprints can be avoided. You can refuse to use social media. But let's say you like being part of the modern world and would control the tracks you leave, wiping away those that you don't want to be forever part of the public record. You can do so but it takes work.
If you use Google, check the Google Dashboard to adjust your privacy settings. Likewise if you use Facebook. While Facebook allows you to delete your account, the default delete setting actually saves all of your information on Facebook's servers, in case you want to come back. You must submit an additional form asking Facebook to really delete your data. This will not delete data stored by third parties you've authorized for Facebook access. You can, however, delete individual posts.
Twitter is a little easier. You can delete your account, your individual Tweets in Twitter, or use a tool like TwitWipe to regularly clear out all of your Tweets, while retaining your account. However, if your account was already indexed by Google, your Tweets can remain visible until Google deletes them.
Anonymous Web surfing through a Web proxy can also help limit your tracks. Some anonymous proxies include Tor, Megaproxy, The Cloak, FreeProxy.ca. The Electronic Frontier Foundation offers a host of other suggestions, too, in its Surveillance Self-Defense project.
The best advice when it comes to digital tracks is the simplest: please watch your step.
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