When will we take back our privacy?

The more willing we are to hand over our personal information, the more readily businesses and the government will abuse it

Back in 1999, I remember being extremely agitated when Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy said, "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it!" regarding consumer privacy protections. "How arrogant is this guy?" I remember asking. Little did I know he was speaking the truth, albeit earlier than most of us wanted to hear it.

His outlandish claim has since been backed up more recently by online juggernauts such as Google's Eric Schmidt and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. InfoWorld's Galen Gruman wrote an excellent article that should serve as a wake-up call about how end-users' personal privacy is being jeopardized.

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Zuckerberg knows our kids and ourselves better than the rest of us, thanks to all the data we surrender to Facebook -- knowingly and otherwise. Making matters worse, today's kids have grown up without a sense or expectation of online privacy. They don't understand the value of it in a free society or what its loss can mean. Most young adults probably don't appreciate the importance of our Constitutionally protected freedoms against unreasonable search and seizure.

Why should they? Nearly the entire world sniffs their network traffic at will. Social media sites turn their private settings into public data in an instant. Many of the most popular websites bury their privacy terms and settings so deeply that you'd have to fall down the rabbit hole to find them. And when you do read the privacy settings, they are often obscure and overly general, and they don't clearly communicate what information is being collected or how it is being used. There are many exceptions to this, but offenders rule.

Spam continues nearly unbated. Unsolicited phone calls and snail mail still accumulate despite numerous supposed consumer protections. Everyone is used to courts saying that it is legal for the police to look through our garbage and follow us via GPS devices without a court warrant. Pesky things like probable cause and evidence just get in the way.

Criminals are routinely tracked using cellphone coordinates, e-toll records, and stoplight cameras. That doesn't bother me. What does, however, is that many stoplight cameras record the license plate of every single car that passes regardless of whether that vehicle committed an infraction. You even have malls trying to track everything a person does through his or her cellphone without prior notification or the ability to opt out.

But what really gets me riled up are the U.S. Fusion Centers. These multiple, geographically disperse centers aggregate public and nonpublic sources of information about individuals. Initially created after 9/11 and supposedly only to track defined terrorists, they now track many, many other individuals. As of 2011, there are at least 73 known Fusion Centers in the United States.

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