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Yet another privacy concern

Every week there seems to be a new concern over the invasive nature of consumer technology and the gadgets that are inexorably taking over our lives. Last week’s scare centered on a little-known Silicon Valley company called Carrier IQ. Apparently, their key-logging software is installed in millions of cell phones, giving Carrier IQ and the wireless carriers the ability to monitor subscribers’ activities.\

The flap started after security researcher Trevor Eckhart posted a lengthy YouTube video demonstrating how the software “reads” cell phone keystrokes, including text messages, phone numbers dialed, Google searches, and everything else we type.

Of course, it didn’t take long for various commentators and regulators to accuse Carrier IQ of everything from  an Orwellian plot to violating federal wiretap laws. Not so, said a company spokesperson – the software is merely a diagnostic tool to troubleshoot devices and monitor network performance.

The fact that our cell phones are closely monitored should come as no surprise to anyone. We have known for years that cell phone towers and Wi-Fi hubs can pinpoint exactly where we are, and what we are doing. We were reminded of this fact just before Thanksgiving, when CNN published an article on how two malls were planning on tracking shoppers’ movements during the holiday season. Apparently, the only way to “opt-out” of this surveillance is to turn off your cell phone, which doesn’t seem much of an option if you need to keep it on for emergencies.

The organizations responsible for the tracking invariably insist that no personal data is being collected but we have heard those kind of assurances before. For years, Google claimed it wasn’t collecting any personal data with its Street View mapping project until, oops, it suddenly admitted it was.

Unfortunately, we have become far too casual about how much of our personal information can be collected, stored, and made available online. Whether it’s information that we willingly post to social networks like Facebook and Foursquare, or web sites and ad networks that track our surfing and online buying habits, everyone of us is creating a detailed digital footprint over which we have very little control.

And it’s only going to get worse. That ever-present smartphone is proving to be the best tracking device of all, allowing third parties to know exactly where we are, what we like to do, and when we like to do it. Even when we willingly provide personal data, it’s become impossible to rely on a secure environment. The last 12 months has seen a string of high-profile corporate security breaches and hacking attacks.

So what can we do? Sadly, very little, other than stay vigilant and make sure we don’t needlessly expose ourselves to ID theft or other cyber crimes. Remember – in the digital age, there really are no secrets!

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