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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.

And as with cloud-based data, the legal requirements for obtaining location data from your mobile service provider are not terribly stringent. According to EFF staff attorney Jennifer Lynch, "It's pretty easy for the government to get access to the location data, and very hard for users to prevent that data from being gathered."

There may not be much you can do about your employer. EFF's Lynch says that reining in the government's zeal for location data may be tough as well. "It's such a useful tool for law enforcement to get access to this info, there's a lot of pushback," Lynch says.

Calabrese of the ACLU says that updating the ECPA is a crucial step in making location data less open to scrutiny. "A lot of location info is flying around, and that's why it's so critical to get legal protection. You should be able to use a cell phone without worrying about being tracked."

#4: Data never forgets a face

Posting and tagging photos online may feel like innocent fun, but behind the scenes it helps build a facial recognition database that makes escaping notice increasingly difficult for anyone.

"Most consumers are already in the largest facial recognition database in the world, and that's Facebook," says EFF's Lynch. Indeed, the immense quantity of photos uploaded to Facebook makes it the poster child--or rather, giant--for the privacy issues surrounding this technology.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2012, Lynch described how Facebook users were, at the time, uploading about 300 million photos to the social networking site every day. Facebook uses the tags associated with those photos to build ever-more-detailed "faceprints" of what you and your friends look like from every angle.

If Facebook used this data strictly to help you find other people you know on Facebook, it might be okay. But Lynch says that when Facebook sells user data to third parties, photo data may be included--and the sanctity of the data afterward is uncertain. "Facebook says it takes care to protect the data, but we don't know how they do it," she says.

Lynch's 2012 Senate testimony also noted that the government has reviewed or requested Facebook data for purposes as varied as citizenship applications, criminal cases, and security checks. "We know that law enforcement asks for this information from Facebook," Lynch said recently. "They don't just ask for your post, but all photos you've been tagged in." Access to Facebook data allows law enforcement officials to move beyond the blunt instrument of a mug shot or a driver's license photo to find people much more easily.

And Facebook isn't the only source of facial-recognition data. Companies such as Google and Apple have facial-recognition technology built into some of their applications, too--most notably online photo sites. According to John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, "Someone can take a photo of you and then track you down based on other identified photos of you that may have been posted on the Web. It's scary and opens very real dangers of being stalked."


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