Thursday, July 4, 2013

Computers, phones make us all open books

Last week's disclosure that the National Security Agency has access to telephone call information, emails and more came as a surprise to people.

For years, there have been rumors of what we now hear is called "Prism," the NSA's program to scan emails and other communications of non-Americans. I can't figure out how to distinguish an email that's written by an American from one that's not.

But I am amazed that people are surprised to hear that this is going on.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying it should happen or that there shouldn't be limits on it. Yes, I do believe there should be limits on what our government should be able to view.

But the fact exists that technology allows all sorts of digital eavesdropping, and it will continue.

One of the things that I tell colleagues and friends is that anything you do electronically, someone can see. From buying milk at the supermarket, to booking a flight online, to posting an update on Facebook, to driving around where our smartphone serves as our GPS, we create a digital trail quite literally wherever we go.

When people tie all of this information together, it makes a compelling story about who we are by what we do.

Of course, the story people like to tell is that this information about who you are and what you like, the better they are able to give you what you want. If you buy lots of diapers, you probably have a young child. If you subscribe to a number of online game sites, you probably do a lot of online gaming and may have a teenager in your home.

On the other hand, if you're buying dangerous products and are not qualified or licensed to use them, this could be a red flag. If you travel to places either typical or atypical of a person of your background, this could also be a red flag.

Another issue currently being addressed in Congress is legislation that would advise you when devices were listening or watching you. Most devices now have both a camera and microphone. We believe we know when they're active, but if someone chooses to turn them on, but not tell us, we may never know we're being watched or listened to.

Again, being watched and listened to has both benefits and drawbacks. Most people want to know when this is occurring, although knowing how the information is going to be used and who will have it are even more important, in my mind.

Nowadays, it's pretty safe to say that no matter where we go or what we do, with very few exceptions, we can be watched. For most of us, it's unlikely that anyone cares where we are or what we do, but with the advances in technology, including the reduction in cost for products and services to perform this surveillance, I predict that we're nowhere at the apex of how much information people will collect on us.

But neither do I fear this. My life is by and large pretty pedestrian. For people who want to be more private, they can choose to avoid many of the conveniences that we take for granted, such as using credit cards, mobile phones, computers and more.

And I do hope that we have say regarding how much our government can and does use this information. I realize that there are national security interests at stake here, and we have always had to balance our individual privacy with national security. I look forward to the conversation.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Tuesday 25 June 2013.