Tuesday, July 17 , 2018, 8:57 pm | Fair 66º


Diane Dimond: Your Privacy in This Digital World

Here we go again. Facebook critics are up in arms, outraged over the idea that their personal information might have been mishandled by the United Kingdom-based company Cambridge Analytica, Facebook or both.

It's as if people are surprised that digital information is shared or outright sold to other companies. Since no one pays to join Facebook, how do you think its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, 33, became a multibillionaire? His company has always exploited its users' likes, dislikes, opinions, photos and videos. Whatever you do on Facebook, Team Zuckerberg is watching, analyzing your every move and figuring out ways to monetize the information.

This column is not about absolving Facebook of wrongdoing. If executives broke laws by divulging private user information, they should pay the price. If it is determined that they violated their fiduciary responsibilities, causing Facebook stock to plummet, as one lawsuit now claims, well, maybe the justice system will find that stockholders deserve some relief.

In just one recent week, Facebook was slapped with no fewer than four federally filed lawsuits stemming from this latest indignation over its corporate policies and practices. The Federal Trade Commission has opened an investigation into whether Facebook violated a past agreement that regulated what user information the company can and cannot share. Did Facebook's dealings with Cambridge Analytica break that agreement? Congress wants to question Zuckerberg about this, and he'll likely appear in the next few weeks.

Maybe then we'll learn whether this is a really big deal or another one of those breathless hyperdriven media moments with no real "there."

In the meantime, if you are among those worried about privacy, if you don't want others to know what sites you have visited, what kind of comments you leave, where you live or what your children look like, don't post it on Facebook! Same goes for Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit and all other social networking sites. Each of them has ingenious ways to capture your activity, and the analytical information they glean is like gold in the digital world.

Now, while we're on the topic of privacy, let's pause and put into perspective what that word means in today's universe. It is safe to say that once you step out of your home, there really is no such thing as privacy. Your neighbors and local shopkeepers have surveillance cameras. More are perched on top of traffic signals, watching you as you drive to work. When you pass by an ATM, your picture is snapped and stored. Your employer may have cameras inside your workplace. And there are those ubiquitous cellphone cameras that so often capture public action.

But that's not all. Did you realize that pictures of your face are likely being stored in all sorts of locations?

The makers of smartphones offer facial recognition software that can unlock the phone when the owner looks at it. Some high-end hotels and stores use entryway cameras outfitted with facial recognition technology to identify wealthy clients and celebrities so they can be offered extra attention. Some department stores use the technology to monitor how customers react to in-store displays. Airlines are toying with the idea of ditching boarding passes and using facial scanners to identify passengers. What if these companies were to figure out a way to sell a photo of your face? Would that be OK with you?

In addition, law enforcement departments across the country also have adopted facial recognition technology, and there is no way for you to know whether your photo is on file.

A 2016 report from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy & Technology reveals that police and the FBI now have access to photographs of about half the U.S. adult population. That's more than 117 million Americans, and 80 percent of the people in the photos don't have a criminal record. Their likeness is stored for the sole reason that they have some form of government photo ID, such as a driver's license. The bureau collects those photographs.

"The FBI has basically enrolled half of all adults in a massive virtual lineup," said Alvaro Bedoya, co-author of the report. "Innocent people don't belong in criminal databases."

Bedoya calls it "dangerous territory," especially since people with darker skin often are more misidentified. Yet I don't recall nearly the public outcry that the latest Facebook revelations have unleashed.

In this era, when we are patted down at airports and allow our luggage to be searched without a warrant, we turn to social media and voluntarily surrender our private information, photos and videos. Then we holler about the loss of privacy?

In Europe, there are proposals to declare that all biometric data, including "faceprints," belong to the owner and, therefore, require permission to be used. But here in America, only the states of Texas and Illinois have laws regulating facial recognition. I'm afraid that trying to stop this runaway lack-of-privacy train now is about as likely as getting people to abandon using Facebook.

Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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