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The 5 biggest online privacy threats of 2013

Melissa Riofrio | April 9, 2013
Your online life may not seem worth tracking as you browse websites, store content in the cloud, and post updates to social networking sites. But the data you generate is a rich trove of information that says more about you than you realize--and it's a tempting treasure for marketers and law enforcement officials alike.

Law-enforcement agencies are requesting cloud-based data with increasing (and unsettling) frequency. Google's Transparency Report graphs a 70 percent increase in such requests over a span of three years, from 12,539 requests in the last six months of 2009 to 21,389 requests in the last six months of 2012.

Cloud services aren't just rolling over, though. For example, Google might comply with a subpoena to reveal the name, contact information, and login records of a Gmail subscriber. But Google would insist that the requesting authority obtain a court order requiring Google to provide greater levels of detail, such as the mail header for a message. In addition, Google would demand to see a search warrant before giving government investigators access to actual email content. Tellingly, the percentage of information requests that Google has fulfilled has dropped slightly over time, from about 75 percent in 2010 to about 66 percent in 2012. Twitter's transparency reporting site offers similarly enlightening reading.

Law-enforcement interests have scuttled past attempts to update ECPA, so it's hard to say whether the current efforts will get any farther. "The only true protection is to understand that anything you put up there can be accessed by somebody else," says Consumer Watchdog's Simpson. "If you don't want that to happen, don't put it in the cloud."

#3: Location data betrayal

Call it the end of the easy alibi: Location data will make it increasingly difficult for you to wander around the world without someone knowing exactly where you are at any given time. Your cell phone is the primary tattletale, but the location data you post to social networking sites are revealing sources, too. Pinpointing your whereabouts will get easier still as other location-beaming devices come online, from smarter cars to smarter watches to Google Glass.

"When you leave your house and go to a friend's house, run errands, go to work, visit a lover--whatever it is you do--if your geolocation is tracked and recorded, that's a lot of information about you," says senior policy analyst Jay Stanley, of ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Program.

Armed with this data, advertisers might (for example) send you promotions for nearby businesses, wherever you are. The result could be a nice surprise--or not. According to a 2011 report by Gartner, "forty-one percent of consumers say they would be concerned about privacy if they were to use mobile location services so that they can receive more targeted offers through advertising or loyalty programs."

You'd be even less pleased if law enforcement officials, your employer, or your ex-spouse's private detective used location data to keep tabs on you. Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, points out that an employer-owned device "lets your employer track you, on and off the job. What kind of consequences and profile data are based on your geolocation, based on the course of your time in or out of work, where you are, how late you are?"


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