Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet

The Death of Privacy

September 2015

By Mike Gould

  …”your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” - The Princess Bride

As Miracle Max described Westley in the quote above, privacy on the Internet is not quite dead, but it is on life support and not expected to make it. It’s cashing in its chips, pining for the fjords, and looking around in vain for that bucket with the to-do list.

Why? Because our corporate overlords want to extract every last shred of monetize-able data from our browsing, spending, and lookup habits. Well, that’s the cynical viewpoint; said overlords would reply that they are merely using the data to provide a more satisfying Web/computer experience which the everyday user has come to expect. The loss of privacy is just collateral damage.

In the past I’ve talked about how email is pretty much public: easily spoofed, hacked, available to snooping governments, vulnerable to a variety of outrages and outages. “Don’t write anything in email you wouldn’t write on a postcard” is the mantra there. Now the syndrome has spread to Internet behavior in general, especially web browsing and lately, search.

Here’s a rundown on the current situation: privacy concerns in the news. (Circa mid-August 2015 – more to come, I’m sure…)

No Curtains for Windows
First, a couple of vocabulary builders: Phoning Home, Mother Ship.

Mother Ship: The corporate servers receiving your data from a piece of software – browser, cloud account, etc.. Phoning Home: first introduced innocuously enough in the movie ET, this refers to the act of sending your data to the Mother Ship. So phoning home to the mother ship is your computer sending data, often without your knowledge, off to some cloud-borne server for analysis and storage.

Windows 10 is the new operating system from Microsoft, and, as usual, there is controversy aplenty about its features/bugs/privacy concerns. One of the biggest beefs that Windows users are having with Microsoft is the way that accounts are set up when you first upgrade to Win10. There is a screen in the Express Settings section where you can tell Windows “just get me going with the default settings”. Most people will see the one big button, click it, and unknowingly kiss their privacy goodbye.

If you put on your reading glasses and look to the opposite side of the screen, there, in much smaller, lower-contrast print, is the “Customized Settings” access text. Not a button, but clickable text, which most folks will ignore. Microsoft, really, really, doesn’t want you to select this. Clicking on the text takes you to the place where you can disable much of what Windows 10 phones home to the mother ship. You can also do this retroactively, using the directions on various web sites, including the one at the URL below.

You might want to do this. Here is the Microsoft statement of what it does with your data: "We will access, disclose and preserve personal data, including your content (such as the content of your emails, other private communications or files in private folders), when we have a good faith belief that doing so is necessary to protect our customers or enforce the terms governing the use of the services."

On the other hand, turning most of this stuff off has a down side: you no longer get the benefits of targeted ads, seamless integration of your data across several devices, and a bunch of other things that are supposed to ease your computing life. See “Cost/Benefits Analysis” below.

A Bite From The Apple
While Apple is generally regarded as being a lot more sensitive to privacy issues than Microsoft, there are still things about their latest operating system, Yosemite (OS10.10) that are less than ideal. One of the biggies is the fact that if you turn on all the iCloud-based features, you are sending a lot of data off to Apple that you may not be aware of.

This happens in Spotlight (Apple’s built-in search engine) when you do a search of the Internet, which, as it happens, uses Microsoft’s Bing, not Google. Here is what Apple says about this (via the privacy statement you can examine if you go to the Spotlight Control panel in System Prefs):

When you use Spotlight or Look up, your search queries, the Spotlight Suggestions you select, and related usage data will be sent to Apple. Search results found on your Mac will not be sent. If you have Location Services on your Mac turned on, when you make a search query to Spotlight or use Look up, the location of your Mac at that time will be sent to Apple. Searches for common words and phrases will be forwarded from Apple to Microsoft’s Bing search engine. These searches are not stored by Microsoft. Location, search queries, and usage information sent to Apple will be used by Apple only to make Spotlight Suggestions more relevant and to improve other Apple products and services.

So stuff is sent, but it is somewhat anonymized, as explained elsewhere in the document. And you can turn most of it off, at the cost of losing most of the same benefits as described for Win10.

Firefoxing
Just this morning I read an article on über-geek site Slash.dot about how the latest version of the Web browser Firefox can send a signal whenever you hover over a link during your browsing. This is not too nefarious and very geeky; Firefox opens a sort of pre-linking request that establishes the path to whatever you are hovering over. Not too concerning except that it will show up in networking logs. There is an easy fix for this below.

Cost/Benefits Analysis
How concerned should you be about all of this? Depends on your data-sharing comfort level vs. how much you want to take advantage of new features – if you want to share your files between your phone, laptop or desktop computers, or whatever, you pretty much have to agree that the powers that be will have access to it as well.

Windows 10 privacy protections articles:
http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2015/08/windows-10-doesnt-offer-much-privacy-by-default-heres-how-to-fix-it/

http://www.techrepublic.com/article/windows-10-violates-your-privacy-by-default-heres-how-you-can-protect-yourself/

Apple OSX Yosemite Privacy concerns:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2014/10/20/apples-mac-computers-can-automatically-collect-your-location-information/

http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/11/03/ filevault_2_mac_users_unsaved_files_and_screenshots_ are_automatically_uploaded.html

Firefox: http://news.slashdot.org/story/15/08/14/2321202/how-to-quash-firefoxs-silent-requests
https://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/how-stop-firefox-making-automatic-connections#w_speculative-pre-connections

Mike Gould has his tinfoil hat in readiness, was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Web Works/Macintosh Training/Digital Photography mega-mall, is a laser artist, performs with the Illuminatus 3.0 Laser Lightshow, and welcomes comments addressed to mgould@mondodyne.com.

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