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Posted On April 30, 2013 Personal Injury

A Love Letter to the Internet: Privacy is Dead and We Gladly Killed It

Privacy on the Internet doesn’t exist. No matter how high we ratchet the privacy settings on social media profiles, or police compromising images, leaks will occur. Our faces will be somewhere on some site doing God knows what, and it’s our own fault. Living “private lives” in a modern, digital society dependent on social media “check-ins” is impossible. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either weird or just plain trying to hide something…or are they? Are those who stay away from social media the only pioneers we have left? As private information becomes public knowledge, we may find that those who were the most selective about their online interactions are the ones who pay less for airline tickets and avoid being the victims of discrimination.

Thanks to Facebook Nothing is Private

If you’re on social media, your privacy is extinct. Your face is out there for everyone to see, and perhaps your daily schedule, where you work, and possibly your phone number. That sounds like enough information for the average crazy person to find where you live and root through your trash. Adjusting the privacy settings on your Facebook account can keep your personal info shuttered – for as long as the site maintains its privacy policy.

Note: the barbarian horde attacking your privacy may vary from the barbarian horde pictured. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

Constantly evolving privacy settings often leave users in the digital dust wondering why their long-lost relatives can now find them. When Facebook or another social media site alters its user agreements or policies, accounts often revert back to their factory default settings. That means all the clicked boxes that kept outside viewers and searchers from finding the accounts have suddenly gone blank. The barn door is open. The gates of Rome have fallen. Here come the barbarians.

Nuances of customization are also a problem for those outside the Internet savvy millennial generation. Older users don’t have the patience to run through all the button options and dropdowns to achieve the correct privacy settings for the desired level of visibility. They trust the website to protect them, to at least keep their information away from prying eyes, and that’s where some run into trouble. Even if users do get the settings correct, they may miss some proprietary features – photo tagging is a popular one – where other friends can effectively defeat their desire for discretion by shouting to the Internet, “Hey my friend is drunk on a trampoline!” That’s not a good look.

Who Owns Your Face?

Do you own your own face? If you have an online profile on a social media website like Instagram, it’s a question worth asking. In January 2013, the popular photo sharing site inserted changes into its privacy policy that essentially allowed advertisers to pick and choose from user-submitted photos to promote their products. Would the photographers get paid for their work? Nope. Would they have a say in what companies lift their photos? Negative.


Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

Uproar ensued across the interwebs, according to NBC News. Users deleted their accounts in protest. Legal pundits trumpeted their opinions over Instagram’s ability to circumvent copyright law and privacy rights. The fervor continued to build until Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom released a statement backing away from the privacy changings.

“Instagram users own their content and Instagram does not claim any ownership rights over your photos,” he said. “Nothing about this has changed…the language we proposed also raised question about whether your photos can be part of an advertisement. We do not have plans for anything like this and because of that we’re going to remove the language that raised the question.”

Think that retraction would’ve happened had users the world over not rioted on their laptops?

Your Social Security Number, The Last Frontier

A Social Security number is that nine digit code given to every U.S. citizen at birth. In many ways, that code is your numerical identifier, the thing that government agencies and credit bureaus will use to separate you from the mass of other people sharing your name. If you want a loan in the United States, you need one. If you’d like government aid, you also (more than likely) need one.

If someone manages to get a hold of your Social Security number, thieving the rest of your identity and turning your finances into a personal sandbox is kindergarten easy. That’s why state agencies and the federal government tell you to protect it and never share the digits if it can at all be avoided. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to give your Social Security number as identification to your cable company or cell phone provider. Unless they’re running a credit check, they don’t need it, and you should refuse handing it over to them. The fewer companies and agencies that keep the information on file, the better. All it takes is for a hacker to compromise one website or data server for your personal information to spread to the most nefarious corners of the identity theft globe.

That’s a career-ending injury for your bank accounts and credit rating.

What’s worse? Some college kids may have already cracked the code the federal government uses to generate new SS numbers. Back in 2009, researchers from Carnegie-Mellon University were able to predict the first five digits of individuals born after 1988 with 44 percent accuracy using a proprietary formula to predict the government’s encryption. In 8.5 percent of attempts, researchers guessed all nine digits in less than 1,000 tries each, according to the Huffington Post. Accuracy of predictions also increased in states with smaller populations.

For a completely unrelated reason, the report alleges, the federal government moved to change the methods they employ to “randomly” determine Social Security numbers.

Personal Information Leading to a Fat Tax?

Should fat people pay more for plane tickets? Many airlines already require obese passengers to purchase two seats – double the price for a single trip. What about those who routinely fly first class or travel by air more frequently? How companies use our personal information could affect the prices we pay for the products and services we use most – and it might be legal. In October 2012, the International Air Transport Association, a trade group representing more than 240 airlines worldwide, decided to allow airlines, travel agents and third-party booking sites to access the personal login information of customers to offer personalized search results…and pricing. That last part is the concerning bit.

Airlines say they only want the information to offer personalized deals and special packages, according to the BBC. Critics don’t see it that way, and argue these companies could easily use personal information to jack up prices for those who already buy higher-priced seats. In fact, travelers already accused Delta Airlines of doing just that in 2011 when two flyers attempted to book seats on the same flight leaving from the same airport while sitting next to one another on different laptops, says the BBC. How did this happen? Apparently, one user was logged into his frequent flyer account, which reportedly led to the sharp difference in fare offerings.

Business As Usual for Air Carriers

Of course, where people fly and how often they do already influences how air carriers set their prices. Popular business travel days routinely have higher fares than days where fewer people choose to fly. They’re maximizing their profits, which when factoring in how precariously close these companies live to bankruptcy, we could hardly blame them for doing.

Or could we?


If rules or practices disenfranchise even a sliver of the population, then we can’t say we have a free and open society. Photo Credit: Flickr (Creative Commons license).

Could we as consumers take exception to the fact that companies are using our personal information to raise prices artificially? How close a line does this ride to discrimination, a landscape where our genetic makeup factors into every price we pay for every product? Too tall? Pay more for clothes. Have blue eyes? Pay more for sunglasses. Come from a traditionally poor neighborhood? Your education may cost more. Either we treat everyone fairly or the system is broken. There can be no exceptions. It isn’t enough to protect our personal information, to hide our Social Security numbers and lock up our Facebook accounts.

We have to demand businesses respect our information, and take our dollars elsewhere when they don’t. If we don’t, there won’t be any way to complain when we have to pay double sugar-free products because we have diabetes, or triple the price for shoes because our feet are extra wide.

We are all equal. That’s it.