Images When we look back at 2010, it will be remembered as a year in which we continued to lose our privacy at an astonishing rate. Facebook notoriously released its members’ private information for anyone to see and permitted advertisers to access information that it promised would be private. 

It was the year that Google collected our personal information, including e-mail, passwords, and files, using their cars that roam neighborhoods photographing our homes for its Street View application. Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, dismissed these complaints, saying if you don’t like Google Street View photographing your houses you “can just move,” and “if you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Yet, in comparison to other companies that amass and market our personal data, these two are more responsive than most to public criticism. They both have public images to maintain and both claim to have taken corrective action to prevent these events from recurring. The problem is that no company can ensure it won’t happen again, not when a single employee or a computer hacker anywhere in the world can create havoc. Or when unscrupulous companies comb all of this public information and resell it to others.

So today, if you go onto the Internet, write e-mail, sign up on various sites, get a shopper’s card, or even use a smartphone, expect the information to become public and to be sold to unscrupulous sites with no codes of ethics. They’ll know what you eat, what websites you visit, what books and movies you consume and what medications you buy.

Apps on your smartphone can access your contacts, track your movements, and might even check your daily calendar. Others can learn when you travel out of town, what hotels you stay at and what companies you are meeting with. In fact, I spoke with one person who runs a successful business that offers a service that mines public information on Facebook and LinkedIn to track the sales personnel of her clients’ competitors so they can compete more effectively.

We can’t blame these companies alone. We’re all guilty of sharing this information to get something in return. We post information on social sites to make business contacts and promote ourselves. We use Google Maps on our cellphones to get traffic information in return for letting Google to track us. We use supermarket loyalty cards to get discounts, allowing them to know what we buy.

Is there any relief in site? Several government agencies, including the FCC, are investigating and proposing a Do Not Track Registry, much like the Do Not Call Registry. And we know how effective that’s been!

But I wouldn’t look to the government for help, since government agencies are committing some of the most egregious invasive activities in the name of protecting us from terrorists. As we all know by now, a local resident, John Tyner, made national news for refusing to submit to TSA’s new “privacy-invading, genital-picture-taking, radiation-delivering back-scatter imaging machines,” as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic aptly describes it.

Tyner refused the alternative, a personal full-body pat down that including touching his personal parts, saying,  "If you touch my junk, I'm gonna have you arrested."  

So his choice was either to subject himself to revealing X-rays or be groped. Tyner decided to leave the airport, unable to board his flight. He then posted a cell phone audio recording of his half-hour encounter in Terminal 2. That recording has become viral and has aroused a huge protest among travelers and airline employees.

And in what can only be described as a really dumb move, San Diego TSA director Michael Aguilar called a press conference to threaten Tyner with an $11, 000 fine for leaving the airport without completing the screening. Yes, this is the way to demonstrate TSA’s competency.

TSA’s defense of these machines has been simplistic without any serious discussion: that body scans and pat-downs make flying safer. But there’s significant evidence from other governments and security experts that these scanners are not as effective, nor as safe, as they claim.  And while they say the images are immediately destroyed, the U.S. Marshals operating a similar scanner in the Orlando, Fla., courthouse saved images of full-body scans that have recently appeared on the web. The TSA has also failed to anticipate and address the intrusive pat downs of breast-cancer survivors with mastectomies, and toddlers that have been taught not to allow anyone to touch them.

TSA has gone too far. They’re putting on a display to make us feel safer by displaying more of us.

They’re using expensive technology while ignoring simpler, safer, and more common sense approaches. That really questions their claims about keeping us as safe as possible. This is not an agency that’s earned our confidence.

It still doesn’t inspect all of the cargo that’s carried by passenger aircraft. It has refused for nine years to implement a trusted traveler plan that would provide frequent travelers with a secure ID after performing a thorough background check. It’s something that U.S. Customs offers to frequent travelers when they enter the country. And by doing so they’d be able to do a better job by screening those that really pose a threat.

Until a few days ago, in response to huge pressure, TSA insisted on screening pilots, the very people to whom we entrust our lives every time we fly. A pilot could certainly take a plane down even without a penknife or liquids that they were searched for.  This is just another example of the flawed logic that calls into question TSA's judgement and common sense.

So perhaps the solution is to have Facebook and Google perform airport security.  They really understand technology and don’t need to pat us down to know all about us. They know where we’ve been and where we’re going, and whom we associate with. They can even do it online. And they have a lot more information about each of us than the TSA ever will!

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UPDATE:

Robert Scoble, author and well-known blogger, reports that Facebook is now deleting Facebook posts that are critical of the company or suggest ways for users to delete their accounts. 

Facebook has been in the news for opening up much of the
information on their members' personal accounts to a much broader audience. It's not just that they've made this move, they also made it difficult if not impossible for users to protect themselves.   In order to opt out,
you are forced  to go to 50
settings with more than 170 options. (They say it's to give their users more
precise control, but I believe that it's really to confuse and deceive their
users.)

What they've done is to compromise your privacy beyond what
any other popular sites have ever done. Your personal information and even
photos can now be seen by strangers. So understand this clearly. They've enticed hundreds of millions to join under a policy that protected users' privacy. Then after they've gotten us hooked, they open up everyone's information, without offering the opportunity to accept or reject the changes. Sounds like bait and switch to me.

Even deleting your account won't protect you. According to
the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Facebook is trying to trick their users
into allowing them to keep their data even after they've "deleted"
their account. But if you just delete your account, they still will retain your
data and make it accessible to their commercial clients.

If you're a Facebook user my advice is to opt out if the
company has not rescinded these policies by the time this column is published. But
do take the time to remove your information first. That's what I'm doing, and
that's what noted tech bloggers and reporters such as Corey Doctorow
(BoingBoing.com) and Leo LaPorte (twit.tv) are doing.

The company has committed a serious breech of its users
information for their own commercial benefit, and if there's justice in this
world, they will see their usage and popularity plummet. That would be a good
example for others who think they are too big and important to have
consideration for their customers. A company that lives by the Web may find out
what it's like to suffer from the Web, as well.

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