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5 reasons we're losing the fight for online privacy

Paul Coletti | Jan. 23, 2014
The evidence is all around us that the battle will eventually be lost.

3. The pervasiveness of technology
Ford executive Jim Farley got a red face recently when in an unguarded moment he let slip that thanks to GPS devices in its vehicles, his company knew "what you're doing ... and when you're doing it." The hapless VP soon rolled back on what he'd said, and personally I'm prepared to believe that Farley overstated the case.

But the point is not that a corporation is storing my journey data as a matter of course but that the ability to do so is merely mouse clicks away. Those with long memories will recall the FBI's attempt to snoop via GM's OnStar system. It was snuffed out via court action but, my, what a precedent.

Just disable the GPS, I hear you cry! Thanks, it had occurred to me, but in the back of my mind I hold doubts that checking a box on the dashboard screen means it's really, really off, and off for good. Short of ripping the box out of the bodywork and thereby invalidating warranties, that GPS is ensconced like a tiny Jason Bourne in sleeper mode just waiting one day to be remotely activated or, worse, hacked into and turned to the dark side.

Cheap sensors and ubiquitous Wi-Fi mean the so-called Internet of things will soon take off. And when that happens it won't just be your car that acts as a giant tracker, but your kettle, your TV and very likely your clothes. Believe it or not, we are closing in on the day when your hair can be hacked.

4. The stunting of development
A few years ago, some enterprising developers hit on a cool new iPhone feature that they embedded into their app. It let you take a photo using the volume button. Users loved it, but Apple didn't, and the app was yanked from iTunes.

Compare this to the world of personal computing, with its relatively open architecture and highly transparent software market. If you've a mind to turn your PC into a Web server, router or fancy coffee-vending machine, go right ahead. And if you don't like the operating system it runs, choose another or, better yet, write your own from scratch; that's what Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, did. Internet guru Jonathan Zittrain refers to the PC's flexible ecosystem as "generative." This is a reflection of the industry's hobbyist origins, and it's this quality that has been responsible to date for some of the greatest advances in computing. If Sergey Brin had had only an iPad to play around with, there would be no Google today.


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