OMG! 2016 will go down as one of the worst years ever -- in countless ways... and I'm not talking about the "real" world here -- that's another article altogether. I'm referring to our digital world 2016. While some of us in the tech industry have made progress, we continue to encounter atrocious violations that halt real, transformative change, especially in the privacy department. The following list is of 2016's top privacy and security violations, and if these don't already keep you up at night (probably because more often than not, no one was reporting on them!), they will by the time you finish reading them.
As Edward Snowden put it: "I don't want to live in a society that does these sort of things... I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded. That is not something I am willing to support or live under." I don't either, Ed! So, let these atrocities serve as our motivation to take personal action and end our support for violators, demand better laws to protect us, and join apps and networks that eliminate corporate and 'Big Brother' surveillance!
1. WhatsApp Sells Out
WhatsApp originally prided itself on privacy. Then it got bought by Facebook. Close to one year later, WhatsApp announced that, under its new terms and conditions, it will now track and share your activity on the app (who you are talking to, when, where you are, for how long, etc.) and your personal information (your phone number and everything else they know about you) and even more -- with its parent company, Facebook. That's right, just in case you forgot, Facebook owns WhatsApp. WhatsApp claimed that these changes were in the best interest of the user (fighting spam and increasing business-to-consumer communication). Since when is sacrificing your privacy in your own best interest?
2. Uber Takes Users For a Ride
Uber updated its app to track users' locations even when they're not using the app. Uber spun the move as data collection and analysis for improving the pickup and drop-off experience. That's questionable thinking, but scarier is the precedent such an action takes, suggesting this practice is okay. It's not. Earlier this year, Uber also had to pay a $20,000 fine to the FTC for providing unauthorized third-party access to drivers' personal information and using aerial tracking to identify riders. Let's hope that such actions don't become the Uber norm.
3. Android's Data Backdoor to China
We all know that Google tracks the location, text messages, and call logs of its devices users. What we didn't know until recently was that information went not only to Google, but also to a mysterious server in China. To make matters worse, the backdoor used for the practice comes through pre-installed monitoring software, meaning it's not malware or a security breach. It's part of the device! According to the "New York Times", American authorities don't know if the data is being collected for advertising purposes or government surveillance. That's not very comforting.
4. Fitbit Fiasco
2016 saw a surge in fitness trackers, which while a helpful resource, revealed a lack of data protection. That's because the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA, protects sensitive patient data according to the world as we knew it in 1996. These regulations predate mobile devices and the common use of the internet. Now in the 21st century, we're learning there's little online protection of our health information. Basically you share everything with products from companies such as Fitbit and in return they sell it to advertisers. We should be in control of our medical profiles and our personal fitness habits.
5. Pokémon Go - Your Data is Theirs
Pokémon Go became a worldwide phenomenon, but at what price? A big hub-bub arose about Pokémon Go's full functionality requiring access to a user's entire Google account on iOS, including your location data, email and browsing history. How's that for an overreach? How else do you think Google can help you find a Squirtle or Caterpie near you? Pokémon Go has to mine where you go, how you get there, and how long you stay. But your email? That's bizarre and creepy. Other location apps such as Foursquare and Tinder do the same thing, as does Facebook. Pokémon Go however, can do it to a level no other app ever has before as they monitor every step, literally. That's not the kind of gameplay we need to be encouraging. The game is great. The privacy behind it is non-existent and a black hole for your "permanent record" as they store, monitor and perhaps even sell what you've been up to, naughty or nice.
6. SnapChat's Private Eyes Are Watching You
Glasses help us put the world into focus. SnapChat's Spectacles help us survey, record and post that view, without the permission of those caught on video. With one simple tap, ten seconds of someone's soul gets automatically uploaded onto the recorder's account. If that sounds disturbing, it's only because it is. Generation Z is willingly the most recorded generation in history. But even they would be less likely to express themselves freely or be true to themselves if they felt they were being recorded at all times. Such technology is invasive and impedes innovation. Remember Google Glass - people don't want this stuff. When we see creepy privacy-violating technology right in front of our face, we recoil! Let's reject this bad idea.
7. China Sets Your Social Score
Late this year, the Chinese government introduced a system that connects citizens' financial, social, political and legal credit ratings to create a social score -- as if the citizens of the Communist nation weren't monitored enough already. Then Facebook openly and willingly offered to provide every tidbit of data on their Chinese members and censor news on its site so that the Communist nation would let the social media app back into the country. In western democracies, such blatant actions would be a clear violation of citizen's basic rights and freedom of speech. Yet Facebook is willing to table all democratic laws because the Chinese market it's trying to capture isn't beholden to them. Soulless at its worst. Seriously, at what point does Facebook draw the line in a sand that even it won't cross? No soul, no ethics, no line.
8. Facebook Fakes Journalism
Back in May, we learned that trending news on Facebook was controlled and edited by people - who were capable of discerning real news from fake news. It seems this particular team overreached a bit and also did some news manipulation - why is this a surprise? Forget privacy here - Facebook spies on its members and assigns political labels to them based on what they see them do. This led to an uproar when conservatives discovered that stories in line with their beliefs were being suppressed by liberal-leaning editors. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, this is first a remarkable privacy violation, and second, incredible censorship. We aren't supposed to censor or filter real news on social media. Then Facebook fired their "fake news" filtering team to appease the conservatives. Of course humans still programmed the algorithms - so this was just a distracting nod to the right. What was the result? Facebook's algorithms boosted and spread fake headlines and news stories, distorting reality and very likely changing the election outcome in the USA.
9. Death by Algorithm
Algorithms used to be equations assigned to math books. Time travel used to be the fodder of science fiction. Now social media sites and search engines use algorithms to change the order of time. This year saw major sites such as Facebook and Instagram radically change algorithms, which changes everyone's news feeds. In other words, your news feeds and timelines aren't shown to you in real time - the algorithms of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter manipulate them - to display posts and content they think you want to see. A lot of people aren't happy with this and for good reason. Part of the fun of these apps is that we get to see what people are doing or saying or what's happening in the actual real life moment. Algorithms take that away. They ruin relevancy and introduce delay. News feeds are meant to be objective, yet these equations make them subjective. And that subjectivity comes from mining through what we do online. So in the end, we get violated twice, by the invasion of privacy and the control of what we see, what we don't see, and when we see it.
10. Racial Profiling & User Surveillance
Earlier this year, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were called out by the California branch of the ACLU for sharing user data with a social media monitoring tool that tracks activists' conversations. That isn't very democratic. Even worse, the product can be manipulated to target activists of color, which has forced some Black Lives Matter activists off of social media and underground. Not good. Facebook similarly got called out in 2016 for letting advertisers exclude specific "Ethnic Affinities," which the company unveiled by collecting facts about users likes and friends. This is not only totally racist, but it also violates federal law. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 detail how you can't exclude people based on race, gender, print notices or ads that show preferences or limitations based on the same criteria. Facebook must have missed that civics lesson.
11. U.S. Government's Back Door Demand
Our federal government tried to make Apple open a backdoor so it could peruse information in a suspect's smartphone. Apple CEO Tim Cook became a privacy advocate/hero fighting back. A lawsuit looked inevitable, until the government said it found a way on its own to achieve the same end goal. Rather than end the debate, I think such an announcement is dynamite to the whole subject. If our government can bypass manufacturers in one instance, then what stops it from doing it over and over again? Devices are a convenience meant to keep us connected to people and our content. Turning them into evidence against ourselves or a confessional platform endangers the future of us and our technology.
12. Yahoo's 1, 2, 3 - The Ultimate Fiasco
(1) In September, Yahoo announced that 500 million user accounts had been breached and the data within them compromised. That alone would make for a bad year. (2) But then in November, word leaked that Yahoo had allowed U.S. intelligence agencies to read through its user emails in search of red flag phrases or keywords. Everything users have written suddenly available to be held against them in a court of law -- as part of their "permanent record," that nasty electronic dossier that lives forever in the hands of those who watch. It was an egregious violation of epic proportions and a perfect end to Yahoo's year, until of course Yahoo reported at year's end that (3) one billion user accounts had been hacked back in 2013. Yes, within one calendar year, Yahoo had managed to achieve the holy grail of incompetence: three epic acts of privacy ineptitude. What is going on at Yahoo!?
13. England's Snooper Charter
Yes, even the UK has co-opted reasonable privacy mores. Officially known as The Investigatory Powers Act 2016, the Snooper Charter in many ways gives UK police and spy agencies a carte blanche for keeping tabs on citizens. It supports the legalization of global surveillance, data collection, government hacking, decryption, data mining of emails and app activity and as the cherry on top, monitoring all internet browsing -- the good, the bad, and the none of your business. Edward Snowden called it "The most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy." While most of these invasive actions will require a warrant, don't expect a lot of pushback from a government requesting permission from itself to spy on its population.
So, what can YOU do about all of this?
It's clear that there are several large perpetrators and everything you do at Facebook, Google, Snapchat, etc., is stored in your online permanent record: what you like, your politics, your partying, your religion, your health issues, who you are friends with, what you say... and now it all affects your ability to get a job, get into school, get a bank loan -- basically everything. How is this ok? It's NOT.
There is no evidence that mass spying eradicates terrorism, and mass spying is exactly the antithesis to the democratic freedoms our ancestors fought and won World Wars for. It's time for all of us to take personal action and end our support for privacy violators, demand better laws to protect our privacy rights, and join apps and networks that eliminate unnecessary corporate and 'Big Brother' surveillance!
See any 2016 privacy violations missing? Join in the conversation at: #WORSTyear4privacy