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Peeping Tom

Rules, regulations and even physical obstacles can only go so far in preventing illegal activity

How would it feel to know that people were listening in on your private conversations and were selling the stories they heard so that you could be targeted with junk mail?  Would it make a difference if those conversations, discussing an illness or trying to find comfort after a tragedy, took place remotely, rather than in person?

Well, surprise, surprise, it’s already happening online.  The Wall Street Journal has a good article on companies that are collating all the data you are posting online, even the private stuff you put up in password protected areas and thought no-one else but your friends could see, and are selling it to marketing companies.  One company has even applied for a patent on a method of uncovering who you really are and linking all of your data, including your “private” posts, together so that the information can fetch a higher price.

The WSJ article looks at some high profile examples of how this is happening.  But, scary as it is, the practice itself is old news.  Screen-scraping, a way of collating the data on a webpage via a robot, is pervasive and so easy to do.  Search engines do it.  Price comparison sites do it.  I do it (with my own pages).  But not everyone is a fan:  recently, Ryanair caused controversy by canceling all tickets booked via websites that had “scraped” pricing data from the Ryanair website (see my article here).

Two things about the article struck me.  First, there is no mention of copyright infringement, which is surprising given that screen-scraping usually involves the unauthorized copying of protected works.  There is only a passing reference to “anti-scraping” laws which exist in some jurisdictions but not others.  Second, there is my constant refrain:  other people are doing this.  Think of all the information that Google has about you, spread across its more than 1,000,000 servers.  How does it make you feel to hear the head of Google say:  “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place”?

The truth is, many people have unreasonable expectations of privacy when it comes to the Internet.  When you post something online, you put it onto a third party server which can be accessed both legitimately and, sadly, illegitimately.  As to the legitimate uses, when was the last time you looked at the terms and conditions of any site you uploaded photos, comments, videos or anything else to?  Chances are, the site will have taken a right to use your work and to share your data.  And with regards to illegitimate access, there’s very little you can do if someone breaks the rules and misuses your content.  Do you know, and can you trust, every person who has the ability to access that content?

So when doing anything online you should always bear in mind what sort of information about yourself and others have are putting up for grabs, because some people can make a lot of money by making sure they find it.

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