December 2015

It’s an unremarkable autumn day here in the heart of Europe. Just a 30 minute train ride outside of the city, the landscape turns quickly to a dark green countryside. Quaint villages, farms, cows, castles, and Roman ruins dot the region. So much evidence of ancient history exists side by side with high technology here. People are sitting in cafes lost in their 4G smartphones apps as a high-speed bullet train whizzes by them with ubiquitous broadband Internet while the sky is filled with crisscrossed jet contrails.

It makes me pause to think how far we have come. And even more mindboggling is the fact that much of the society-changing advancements have occurred in the previous quarter century. When I arrived here 27 years ago from America, there wasn’t even email. People wrote letters. ATM machines were a rarity, and phones were connected by wires.

Personal information was stored on paper and locked away in file cabinet, or resided only in the memories of our closest family and friends, or with our lawyer or accountant. Boy how times have changed.

Deciding to pick up a few items at the local grocery store, I opted to bike the mile or so to get there. Equipped with my smartphone and my fitness app, I set off to buy bread, cheese, and a bottle of my favorite red wine for dinner. At the store, the checkout girl swipes my customer card, I pay by electronic debit card, and I am back within 45 minutes to review my heartrate data.

A reminder pops up on my phone, next week is my nephew’s birthday. Knowing what he likes, I browse a few categories on the Web, find something he wants, and order it on Amazon.

Working from home today, I log onto the Internet and access my email. There’s a meeting in an hour. I am going to have a video chat on Google Hangouts with colleagues on three continents. We are collaborating on a presentation. The presentation doesn’t reside on my notebook. Rather, all our documents are stored in the cloud; Google Apps.

Waiting for the meeting to start, I check the status of opportunities on our cloud-based CRM (customer-relationship management) system, in this case Salesforce.com, and browse the news and do some research for an upcoming paper that will be given at a conference on the other side of the planet.

For me this is a routine morning. It begins before 9 am with a massive trail of personal and professional information in cyberspace.

With each action I took, I willingly (or unwittingly) gave detailed information away about where I was, the types of things I buy for myself and for others, my preferred news sources, the state of my health, my family status, where I live, what I look like, my voice signature, gender, how much I weigh, my income range, and even how old I am. I even provided the world with whether I have high-blood pressure and my chances of having a heart attack within the next five years.

During my online meeting, I gave away the company I work for, the latest state of our products, and the customers we are targeting. All stored somewhere in a faraway cloud owned by a company I have not signed contract with. My family photos are also stored in the cloud, revealing detailed information about me, my family, our lifestyles, hobbies, where we go on vacation, and who are our friends.

Add to this all the connected devices around us who are constantly collecting information, how much energy we use and when, how fast we are driving, what TV shows we prefer, who we communicate with, and which apps we use. Each day, we donate chapters of our personal information to the cloud, often unknowingly.

If you ever suspected that mobile operators, credit card companies, your operating system, search engines, Web browser, and your favorite online service providers are collecting data from you 24/7 with the goal of monetizing it, rest assured… they are.
Under the guise of “we will only use your data for specific purposes such as improving service…” the collection, correlation, and selling of your personal details is occurring everyday on a massive scale.

The business of trading in personal big data is big bucks. It is conducted behind the scenes by online search giants, mobile operators, social media, retail companies, insurances, advertisers, and increasingly government organizations in an invisible digital bazaar.

Sure, quite often data collected about us is “anonymized.” It says so in the agreement, so it must be true? But quite often “anonymous” information from one source can be correlated with “anonymous” data from another, and together, an increasingly accurate digital signature of each individual identity can be reconstructed.

That is why credit card companies work together with retail and search engine giants. Knowing your purchase history, combined with where you live, your social-economic and marital status, and what Websites you frequent makes advertisers very, very happy.

And advertisers were just the early adopters. Retailers and insurers were next. Banks, entertainment companies, divorce lawyers, grocery chains, fast food chains, automakers, online dating services… literally any company selling products or services will pay top price for cleaned and verified behavioral data about target consumer groups.

About you.

And that just applies to businesses operating legally. I won’t even bring up the topic of major cybersecurity breaches recently achieved by hackers.

A little known fact is that the U.S. government does not have a waterproof policy to protect you. Here in Europe, online privacy laws are far more stringent than in the United States. The EU has established a very formalized and comprehensive policy on the protection of private data in the form of Directive 1995/46/EC.

The United States, on the other hand, has a poorly coordinated and almost ad-hoc approach to protecting the digital privacy of its citizens:

Data Protection in the U.S.

“Unlike the EU, the U.S. does not have a single overarching privacy law. On a federal level, the United States maintains a sectoral approach towards data protection legislation where certain industries are covered and others are not…”

Have a look at “Differences between the privacy laws in the EU vs. the U.S.”

Our utopian world of connected devices has resulted in improved communication, convenience, security, entertainment, and access to information. We are safer, smarter, healthier, more efficient, have more fun, and are better informed because of it.

But at what cost to our personal privacy?


Currently based in Switzerland, Carl Fenger has more than 25 years of international experience authoring numerous articles in electronics, software, and M2M technologies. He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering from the University of California. He can be reached at carl.fenger@outlook.com

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