Who is spying on you? What the Yahoo! hack taught us about Facebook, Google and WhatsApp
Who is spying on you?
Yahoo would sure like to forget 2016.
A string of misguided moves has led what once was considered the king of the Internet to spiral downward to the point of irrelevance.
In fact, if it weren’t for bad news (shrinking earnings, invasive hacks) Yahoo wouldn’t be in the news at all, which brings us to the recent news that the company provided and allowed U.S. intelligence agencies to read through Yahoo user emails.
Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about tracking terrorists or undesirables here. We’re talking about Yahoo handing over the right for the US and likely other friendly governments to scan all incoming emails in search of red flag phrases or keywords.
Think about this for a second. All those emails you’ve written and received with discussions about politics and people that were assumed to be private and meant as inside jokes for you and your friends were being filtered through CIA headquarters.
Kind of makes you wonder what you’ve written in the past few years, doesn’t it?
Yahoo was recently hacked exposing people’s data
Imagine becoming a person of interest because you make a meaningless comment to your mother, brother or best friend that uses a few unintentionally scary keywords.
Hmmm, that likely puts just about everyone on a government “watch” list.
Everything you write, public or private, not only is now available to be held against you in a court of law — it all becomes part of your “permanent record,” that nasty electronic dossier on you that lives forever in the hands of those who watch.
Yahoo has of course been pummeled in all the headlines for what unfolded.
But Yahoo alone isn’t the problem. They didn’t create the practice of online snooping. That’s been going on just about as long as the Internet itself.
Neither did they elevate the offense. The telecommunications industry led by AT&T, Verizon, Samsung and countless others has been caught infringing on privacy rights numerous times this year.
It is well documented that millions of dollars has changed hands between the US government and large telecoms in exchange for the annual set of communication records of their customers.
Then there’s Facebook.
Facebook has been watching you
Facebook the ‘privacy villain of the year’
Two weeks ago, the European Digital Rights (EDRi), a coalition of civil rights organizations, presented the social media giant with its “privacy villain of the year” award.
Facebook has been looking at all your content, your pictures, contacts, and words since inception. It has experimented with manipulating the content you see and the emotions you express, tracked what you’re playing on your smartphone while digitally identifying you in photos, and much more. Facebook even tracks non-members.
Gmail left the door open from the start
And what about Google?
Google claims it wants to help you in every way possible. They are a search engine, a smart thermostat, a map, a video site, a place to create content and socialize and much more.
The list goes on and on with what they do and offer based on their many acquisitions.
What they don’t tell you in any way obvious, is that they scan every slice of Google that you use. All that information . . . becomes part of your “permanent record.” They argue it’s useful in order to customize your experience.
Google is doing everything they can to subvert your right to be forgotten. They seem to know literally everything you’re doing and what the temperature in your house is.
Remember, this is the same Google that was fined millions of dollars by several different countries when they literally stole IP addresses and WiFi passwords from citizens’ homes as they drove by in their quest to map the world. By this time we are all exhausted by the mind-numbing targeted ads and content we receive. Who is that really useful to? To them of course.
While it lacked the tech back then it doesn’t now
This isn’t a new thing
The real scary part is that in many instances, this was the intention from day one.
Look at the patent Google filed for Gmail in 2005. Google put its cards face up there, spelling out that while it then currently lacked the technology to scan emails and attachments, it left the door open to in the future.
Today they’ve been scanning for years. Data brokers enjoy over 1,500 pieces of data on all of us, thanks to services like Google and Facebook. And now as we’ve learned, it is Yahoo’s turn to offend.
These huge companies I prefer to call “data vacuums.” Their members are products sold to their customers — data brokers, advertisers, and as we often learn later, governments.
They willingly sacrifice their users in exchange for dollars, no matter who the customer. It gives a black eye to technology in general.
This hasn’t been lost on Silicon Valley.
Within 24 hours of the news about Yahoo, companies such as Microsoft, Twitter, and yes, Facebook and Google, quickly denied following any such practice themselves, claiming they would fight such government demands up to the Supreme Court.
While hypocritical in many ways, these tech giants are smart enough to know who butters their bread and that the perception of trust outweighs the reality of it. But isn’t it the government who ultimately ends up with the data if a company is intentionally spying on us and building a huge record about each of us?
WhatsApp is now owned by Facebook
WhatsApp is tracking you
Facebook owns WhatsApp, by the way.
For WhatsApp users, you may want to run quickly — because you are now just another data nugget and your privacy, which was the very premise of WhatsApp, has been compromised mercilessly.
In your permanent record they now note who you are talking to, when/what time you are talking with them, and where you are when you are talking with them.
It just seems predictable that at some point some hacker is going to make public all of our permanent records. This could wreak havoc on our jobs, our relationships, our families, and so much more. It is likely — perhaps not today, but certainly in the coming years.
Going forward, incidents such as this latest Yahoo fiasco thankfully increase the demand for user control and privacy as a fundamental right.
People of the world want to have their personal privacy respected, and as Pew Research has recently reported, now more than ever.
The good news is that companies can easily enough produce apps that follow privacy-by-design principles.
I know this in practice. As founder of MeWe, the next-gen social network, we protected users with an industry-exclusive Privacy Bill of Rights.
It has no dossier on users, because it was built with no tracking, no algorithm and no target ads or content.
It is possible.
So what can we learn from Yahoo’s actions?
This whole episode is yet another symptom of an overall disease concerning the lack of privacy online that has spread to all corners of the globe.
Enough is enough already. The best way to cause corporate behavioral changes is to change our behavior as consumers.
We can take action, by terminating our accounts and marching away from these data-grabbing/selling entities and realign ourselves with companies philosophically aligned with the inalienable human privilege that democracy is intended to protect, the right to personal privacy.