Saturday, May 28, 2011


I've invented a word, "privanoia," which means paranoia about privacy. Privacy issues are raised again with recent stories of companies using our own electronic devices to spy on us.

In a story sure to raise of the hackles of privanoids everywhere, Aaron's Inc., a company which rents furniture and appliances to consumers, is accused of using software on a computer to view the user without his consent. An unidentified Aaron's manager showed a man, Brian Byrd, a photo of Byrd taken remotely by the webcam as he sat at the computer. Byrd is suing Aaron's. The national headquarters of Aaron's denies it's a company policy, and was done by a store franchised to an individual.

The spy software to do this is easy to come by and widely available.

The story of the Aaron's spying didn't last long as news; it was a one-day wonder. In another story which got a tremendous amount of press because more people own iPhones and iPads than rent computers from Aaron's, it was shown that those devices can track the user's whereabouts. Apple came out with a less than satisfactory answer as to why, but some soft pedal the notion it is used with evil intent. They claim it's basically the same kind of tracking cell phones have always had. If you watch any crime shows on TV you know that cell phones leave a record of what cell towers are being used at the moment calls are made. But others see the storing of such information on iPhones and iPads sinister since that it can be transmitted from device to device.

In 2008 writer Chris Albrecht wrote of an interview with cable giant Comcast's senior VP of user experience, Gerard Kunkel, who told him, "the cable company is experimenting with different camera technologies built into devices so it can know who's in your living room." According to Kunkel it would be done for reasons of identifying children in the room so parental blocks on programming can be automatically put into place, or for giving suggestions to adults for programs based on past usage.

It sounds chilling, doesn't it? These stories represent a really scary look into technology, that what we watch can be watching us back. In some cases there appears to be an intent to be useful (Comcast) in much the same way Google tries to interpret what you're typing into the search engine by throwing up suggestions even as you type. Companies like make suggestions for purchases based on what you've bought or looked at in the past. In another, protecting one's property (Aaron's, watching the user of its rental equipment); or in the case of the iPhone, tracking where cell phones are used (already common, but undisclosed by Apple as to how such information could be used, and why it transfers between devices.)

I remember paranoid stories when I first signed on to cable television. Someone told me that the company mounted a camera in the cable box, and it was able to watch the user. I actually looked at the box and didn't see anything, even the size of a pinhole, that could be a camera lens, so I dismissed it as paranoid raving. A couple of years later I heard of a study, done with the consent of television watchers, to mount a camera on their TVs, to find out how people watch television. (They found out people do everything in front of a TV, eat dinner, sleep, make love, but they don't always look at the screen when "watching" TV.) I suspected, although I've never known for sure, whether the story of the TV cam became twisted, and was the basis for the story about the camera in the cable box. Stories like Chris Albrecht's about Comcast mounting cameras to identify watchers wouldn't help squelch the paranoia about cable boxes.

We are being encroached on in ways we never suspected years ago. Cameras watching us through our TVs (and computers) were the stuff of George Orwell. But Orwell published his book, 1984, in 1948. In 2011 being watched, especially in stores, is part of the shopping experience. I'm aware my movements in Walmart are being observed on camera, but I'm on someone else's property, and they have a right to see that I'm behaving myself.

You could infer that everywhere you go you are being watched by someone. It might be a human eye, or a camera's eye. It might see you when you put your finger in your nose, or pull your pants out of the crack of your butt, scratch yourself or grimace, yawn, cough, belch, laugh...all things relatively harmless, but not what you want someone else to see. I don't, but on the other hand, if someone is stealing or exposing himself in a store I'm glad there are cameras recording them so they can be stopped.

I have a webcam, but I only plug it in when I use Skype. Is there a file being collected somewhere of what people do when they use their webcams? Like for having long distance sex?

Finally, I put my name into, and came up with my wife's name, my address and telephone number, a picture of my house, and if I wanted to pay $4.95, I could find out more information about myself, like my income and such. I typed in the names of relatives and friends and I found most of them, also. My privanoia went off the charts, until I forced myself to calm down. Spokeo is collecting information on all of us that is available in various places for anyone who wants to look. The Internet can be a valuable tool for us, or unfortunately, against us.

Privacy? Like the horse and buggy, button shoes and 5¢ candy bar, it is forever gone.


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