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Tech Corner

By Bill Pfohl


Recently, the news media have been covering the revelation that Apple and Android devices are tracking your movements, locations, and buying habits and storing them in real time. A local 18-year-old high school student was arrested after his 16-year-old girlfriend sent him a sexting picture. Due to changes in laws to protect us from terrorism, our computers and hard drives can be confiscated for cause with no warrant or explanation needed. So what freedoms do we give up by using technology? Maybe more than we think. Perhaps another way to put it is "Did you know your privacy was being compromised by using what many consider normal everyday technology?" If it is fine with you, then this is not an issue. If you are concerned, then where is the due process we value in the United States?

Were you informed of this tracking feature on your electronic device? If you call someone on a regular telephone landline, which is getting more rare, you are protected from others seeing your log of calls unless a court approves it. If you use your cell phone for calls, anyone using a scanner can potentially monitor your call. Currently, cell phones are not protected by the same laws as the landlines. Are your e-mails safe? Not really. Several e-mail provider companies several years ago released e-mails to the government. E-mails are not private, as employers and ISP companies do capture them on their servers. What are your rights to protect yourself? There was a recent court ruling in the case of the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after being videotaped by his roommate. It was revealed that the roommate who did the videotaping invited others through Tweets to view it and then he tried to delete the Tweets. The courts indicated said this was tampering with evidence and making the situation more complicated. Are your Tweets and TXT messages all subject to scrutiny after you delete them? We have all sent an e-mail we may have regretted. Will they be in our digital footprint forever? The trend appears to be yes, they are there forever. Lawyers in divorce proceedings are asking for e-mail and computer records. They have to get a court order to get them, but likely they can. So my point is are we getting so used to using technology in our day-to-day lives that we don’t think about our rights and privacy limitations?

A couple of years ago, Google made headlines for having pictures and addresses of people’s homes throughout the world. You can still find a picture of my home online! Now the latest revelation: Apple and Android (Google) devices are tracking your every movement in real time. In their defense, both organizations say they are doing it with your permission—when you check the box when you activate the software privacy statement. I tried to read Apple’s once: I would need a law degree! It was long—more than 70 pages—and full of legalese. It changes every time I upgrade my software. We have all checked the privacy statement box without reading it. Well, this authorizes Apple and Andriod devices to track you. How? Have you entered your zip code in an app? Caught! So what is the big deal? I like being able to check the weather, find less expensive gas and restaurant reviews online, or even use Google Maps. "They" have to know where you are to give you the service you asked for. Are third-party vendors under the same obligations as your phone company to protect your privacy? Likely not. They can mine and sell your data to other vendors (also known as "profiling") for marketing purposes. How can Amazon tell you "others have bought this product" without this information? They tell others what you bought, too. Where did you shoot that video on your iPhone or iPad? It can be tracked. The faith you have in these vendors not to sell or store your personal data is the key to your privacy, because they say you gave them permission. What I have read is that the privacy laws have not, and are not likely to be able to keep up with the technology advances.

Whenever you sign on to the Internet with your computer or device, your Internet Protocol (IP) numerical address is assigned to your device (Smartphones, printers, routers, etc.). It is unique and specific to your device, unless you are using a network, which has its own IP address. A router also has an IP address, so WiFi can be traced, too. You can take extra steps to bypass or hide from this process, but most do not. I logged into TraceMyIP.org and it told me what my IP address is; my city, state, and type of computer I use; as well as software and websites I searched from. Clearly enough information to track me. Most people will leave a history trace in their Internet browser—where they have accessed websites. Some of these sites leave "cookies" which tell them you were there and welcome you back the next time. Cookies can also store your passwords. They do this through your IP address. Even if you clear the browser history often, it still can be opened without much difficulty. Parents track their child’s viewing habits this way. Students usually learn early to clear their history after using the Internet, but other software can still access the history and easily track your path. This path is how those involved in illegal activity on the Internet can be caught, including those using child porn (as in the sexting example above). Attempts to erase this information may lead to more legal difficulties. The information is not unobtainable.

So am I being paranoid? I had always believed that anything I did within the law was protected. I am finding these new revelations to be somewhat unsettling. I had believed the laws would protect me as a citizen, but companies or individuals can track and sell my information to others. I did not know explicitly that my Smartphone was allowing others to track me through its Location settings. My daily activities, while legal, are being stored on servers of software companies without a guarantee of my personal protection.

So read the fine print (it will take a long time), or just check the privacy agreement box and hope others find your life as boring as it seems. You can turn off your Location information using the software settings in your Smartphone or apps—read the directions carefully. They are listed under Settings>General>Location on the iPhone. If you turn off all apps or software that track you, you will keep your privacy but lose many functions you may use regularly. Be careful on Facebook when you create your privacy settings. Be informed before you check that privacy agreement box! Have a great summer.

Recommended Websites

Cyber Criminals Most Wanted http://www.ccmostwanted.com Cybercrime awareness, prevention, and safety.

iSA FE www.isafe.org Curricula for safe Internet use.

Netsmartz Workshop http://www.netsmartz.org A program of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

I Keep Safe http://www.ikeepsafe.org Resources for parents and children on Internet safety.

Web Wise Kids http://www.webwisekids.org/index.asp Resources for teachers. See statistics and helpful hints.

Bill Pfohl, NCSP, is a professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY. He is president of the International School Psychology Association and a former president of NASP. He can be reached at billnasp@aol.com.