This is from the opening voice over of one of my favorite TV shows, ”Person of Interest”. Like all good science fiction it takes existing technology and extrapolates a possible future based on where this technology could lead us. In this case, there is almost as much fact as fiction in the technology. We know that the Federal Government has used automated systems to monitor email and telephone communication, without acquiring a warrant, searching for terrorists.
Over the last 10 years we have also had a dramatic increase in the number of cameras in use in public areas, by law enforcement, traffic control and other security uses such as ATM machines. As I go through my day today, for example, I leave a trail of video and photographs, starting with the cameras that see me go through toll booths on the Garden State Parkway, to cameras at my bank to the street camera’s in Jersey City where I teach a class tonight. And those are just the cameras I know of.
Person of Interest proposes that such systems could be universally accessed and used by a highly intelligent program to identify persons who, based on recent behavior, are in life threatening situations. The heroes of the show use the information to act as guardian angels, but the fictional technology is also used on the show for nefarious purposes. Like all technology, it is merely a tool. It can be used for good or for evil, all depending on who wields the tools. In the world today, it is not just the government watching you. There are criminals who infect web sites and advertising banners with malware that will install sniffer and key logger programs to watch what you are doing and where you are going on the web. They can use that information to defraud you or access networks that you use.
In the case of criminals or other hackers up to no good, most of us have a pretty good idea of what to do about it. You make sure you have an up today antivirus program running, you use a personal firewall and you keep up with the latest Java and browser updates. Less well understood are the issues with other, non-criminal intrusions on our privacy. Every time you use a search engine you are tracked. They do it so they can present appropriate and effecting advertisement in your browser. That is certainly not a malicious goal, but there is the potential for abuse.
The search engines accumulate profiles on you based on your activities on the web. They can determine an enormous amount about who you. The potential for abuse comes in when the search engines sell your profile to a third party. The information could be used to evaluate you for insurance, credit or employment. It is easy to see how data accumulated like this could be misinterpreted or include information about other people who use your computer or internet connection.
Although not as widely available as antivirus software, I would recommend systems that protect against abuse of tracking and cookies to protect your privacy. Such software is usually installed as browser extensions. As a side benefit, they can also improve your browser performance because of the reduction in reading and writing data to your hard drive and the reduced internet connections.