December 12, 2018
by Randall J. Boyle, PhD, associate professor of Management Information Systems, and Willard Eccles Fellow, WSU
Most people have heard the name Edward Snowden. They know he stole something, and made a bunch of people upset. But when you ask them exactly what he stole, they’re not really sure. They may say it was classified information, but the can’t tell you what he took. The general public’s memory is pretty short. Edward Snowden revealed the information back in 2013, and now its importance is largely forgotten.
Edward Snowden leaked 41 PowerPoint slides detailing a covert NSA surveillance program code-named PRISM. The revelation of the PRISM system was devastating because it showed that the NSA had direct access to email, chat (video and voice), videos, photos, stored data, VoIP calls, file transfers, login activity, social media, etc. for anyone that used services at Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple. That’s pretty much everyone.
And the PRISM system is just one of many active government surveillance programs. There are others. You can learn about them by reading the PRISM article posted on Wikipedia. They have the PowerPoint slides there too.
But, quite honestly, it’s not just government agencies violating your privacy. Corporations do it too. In fact, that’s how some of the largest tech companies generate revenue. In the first quarter of 2018, Alphabet Inc. (Google) was the second largest company in the world by market capitalization. Apple, the largest, was worth $850 billion, and Google was worth $715 billion. But why is Google worth so much? How does it make money?
Apple sells wildly popular phones, tablets, and computers to consumers around the world. They probably deserve the top spot. But what does Google sell? Lots of people use Gmail, but it’s free, so is YouTube, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Drive, Google+, Google Chrome, and Google Search. In fact, when I speak to large groups of people, I always ask who has ever bought something from Google. A couple hands go up. Once in a while you’ll bump into someone who has purchased a Google phone, or paid for extra storage space on Google Drive. But that’s rare.
People don’t pay for Google products, yet the company is worth hundreds of billions of dollars. That’s a major disconnect for the majority of people. They just don’t get it.
I’ll tell you where they make their money. Google makes 87% of its revenue from advertising. Advertisers pay Google to target you with ads. Google shares information about you, so advertisers can target you more effectively. And Google shares a lot of your information — more than you might realize. So, in essence, you’re Google’s product. It’s like the old adage, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” Google monetizes your information. Yes, you lose some privacy. But, hey, you signed up for a free email account.
And it’s not just Google. Nearly all social media companies do the same thing. Do you know anyone who pays for Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter? Nope. More monetization, less privacy.
PRIVACY IS A GOOD THING
People who make money from selling your information don’t like privacy advocates. It could hurt their revenue stream. It makes sense. We can’t blame them for trying to operate a successful business. They do offer us free services, but most users don’t know how much they’re really giving up. And some of these companies try to vilify people who try to protect privacy. They try to use false arguments, such as “Hey, you don’t need privacy unless you’ve got something to hide.”
Freedom is a good thing. So is privacy. No one has a right to know the details of your private life. Tell them to mind their own business. Violations of personal freedoms and privacy are hallmarks of some of the worst dictatorships in human history. Privacy is a good thing worth protecting. If you’re still unsure, please feel free to consult your local historian. They’re full of great stories about dictators massacring their own people.
ENCRYPTION FOR CONFIDENTIALITY
So how do you start taking back your privacy? Well, a good place to start is to learn to use encryption software. Again, people watching you really don’t want you using encryption software. In fact, most people can’t name a single piece of encryption software. Pause here, and see if you can think of one… see, most people can’t. I talk to many large groups, and I might get one person out of 1,000 able to name a piece of encryption software.
Go to 7-zip.org and download 7-Zip. It’s one of the best compression and encryption applications available today. It’s free and really easy to use. Once it’s installed, you can right-click any file (or directory) and encrypt it automatically. It will prompt you to enter a password (which, of course, you’ll want to remember) and you’re done. It’s easy to use and very useful.
Once you’ve encrypted your files, you can upload them to your online storage, burn them to a disk, or send them in an email. The contents of your files will remain confidential, and you will have regained some of your privacy. Remember, privacy is a good thing. Anyone arguing against your personal privacy probably doesn’t have your best interests at heart.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Randall J. Boyle is an Associate Professor of Management Information Systems, and Willard Eccles Fellow, at Weber State University in the Goddard School of Business and Economics. He received his Ph.D. in Management Information Systems from Florida State University in 2003. He also has a master's degree in Public Administration and a B.S. in Finance. His research areas include deception detection in computer-mediated environments, data breaches, secure information systems, the effects of IT on cognitive biases, and the effects of IT on knowledge workers.
He has published in several academic journals such as Decision Support Systems, Journal of Management Information Systems, Journal of Computer Information Systems, and Journal of International Technology and Information Management. He has authored several books including Using MIS 11e, Experiencing MIS 8e, Corporate Computer and Network Security 4e, Applied Information Security 2e, and Applied Networking Labs 2e.
He has received university teaching awards at Weber State University, Longwood University, the University of Utah, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville. He has taught a wide variety of classes including Cyber Security, Advanced Cyber Security, Telecommunications, Networking & Servers, System Analysis and Design, Decision Support Systems, Web Servers, and Introduction to MIS.