Monday, February 24, 2014

Just Letting You Know We Know You

A week or so ago we heard a couple of experts on a news program discussing the practice of information collection by internet web sites. Just as routine as your connection, the experts agreed, was the practice of capturing and interpreting information about us and then using it to further their bottom line. The so-easy-to-use "apps" you download for nothing to your handy cell phone can do the same thing.

The experts discussed not the technology - you either understand that sort of thing or not - but rather how pervasive passive information gathering is in our society, and how it is used. The thing is, every time you click a key, or almost that often, some piece of your private and personal life is being detached from you and added to the world at large. What struck us was not that this happens, but that it is something you can’t control. Evidently, according to the mavens on screen, there is no way you can opt out of having your information collected, except of course, by not using the ‘net or a cell phone.

Sure there are folks who don’t use either one, but they are, at least in the eyes of the digital scrutinizers, marginal anyway. And they must be right. How else can one keep up with the world of today without being part of the digital age?

Well, so what? Suppose this is all true, that every time you click something while you are connected, a little piece of you goes into someone’s data bank? What is the information used for? Why do companies, not to mention governments, want that information and what do they do with it? The government usage is rather obvious to us: the ability to find and track those who would do us harm is an essential function of government. Abuse is always possible, and unless we remain aware of it, our freedom and safety could be at risk. On the other hand, without such information gathering, our freedom and safety could be at risk. Vigilance and the willingness to call attention to abuses is essential to freedom. (Don’t misread me: there are ways of doing this without giving away those secrets we need to hold, and simply throwing all that sort of thing out in public in great detail is just as dangerous as unmoderated collection.)

There is one other aspect of this information gathering that one must also be aware of: mis-information. Lives are equally at risk from mis-interpretation of information bits as from true information about real threats.

But here is what makes all of this a concern: several days after the news program aired, a friend and I were exchanging emails about the weather and how it was affecting our daily lives. My correspondent used the work "trek" in his first paragraph, and in my reply, I used the word "trekking." The next time I opened my email, in a panel to the right of the message were ads for places I could "trek," and clothing and tools that were essential to "trekking," as in the Himalayas, or the Sahara. Wonderful, this modern age of computers; they can pick out a word or two and reach a conclusion; in this case, deducing that my friend and I were planning a trip to one of those "faraway places with strange sounding names," as the old song has it. Without asking for recommendations, we were being directed to the outfitters and outfits we would need, and places we could go. Except.

Except that what we were writing about was leaving our respective mountains and going to the nearby village or town to buy supplies we need for everyday living right here at home.

So what conclusions do I draw from this? Three, actually:

1.  You can’t escape the Internet
2.  The Internet isn’t all that smart.
3.  It doesn’t matter. In the wrong hands, in the right circumstances, even  the most innocent words can make you guilty.

(As I was preparing to review this, prior to publishing it here, I took a break to look in my email in-box. Two news summaries were waiting to be read. I found an article in each summary expressing the same concerns, so if you read this on your computer today, be sure and take a look at what "recommendations" appear in your next email session.)


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