Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Skin Deep Security

Rupert and James Murdoch speaking with Rebekah Brooks

Rupert and James Murdock were recently ushered into the British Parliament to testify about their knowledge of and culpability in the phone hacking scandal which wrecked News Corp. tabloid News of the World. Senior editor Rebekah Brooks will also be asked to testify as to her involvement or consent in the phone tapping scandal. This is not news, necessarily. While news of the scandal has been a front page story of every British and American newspaper, the idea that someone would want to unlawfully tap into another's correspondence for the purpose of exploitation is quite common and a practice which is widely and secretly held in Western culture. 

From Sarah Palin's personal email getting hacked during the last Presidential cycle to Richard Nixon's Watergate scandal, involving tapping phone lines of the Democratic National Committee's office, bugging and listening, tracking and surveillance are as American as Mom and apple pie. The Bush administration was embroiled in controversy over their use of warrant-less wiretapping, via the National Security Agency (NSA) which was considered (at the time) a necessary tool in the "war on terror." Last year, a federal judge deemed the practice of warrant-less wiretapping illegal and a breech of the "1978 federal statute requiring court approval for domestic surveillance... Under the program, the National Security Agency monitored Americans’ international e-mail messages and phone calls without court approval, even though the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, required warrants" (NY Times).

It is not only the federal government who would like to keep tabs on who is doing what. Some parents are turning to Global Positioning System (GPS) technology as a way of keeping an eye on their children while they are out and about. Public broadcasting reported in 2007, that while GPS has been around since the 1970's, the number of devices available to families is making it easier for parent's to know where their children are or have been. "One of the most popular applications of GPS technology for parents has been a small box that is plugged into a car dashboard, allowing them to remotely download data, including the car's location and speed, from the box onto their computer" (PBS). Cell phones, especially smart phones have additional tracking features which can leave a virtual trail of breadcrumbs. "Verizon's service allows parents to mark up to 10 areas with "virtual fencing," and sends a text message if the car breaches a boundary" and PBS says that "there are no rules requiring parents to inform their children that they are being monitored. It is up to the parents to decide whether to tell their kids or not" (PBS).

And while surveillance of driving teenagers may be favorable to parents and the bane of their young adult children, their are a whole host of security questions being raised by the digital/information age which we don't seem to have any answers to. Questions like:

Who owns the materials that you post on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook? Twitter and Facebook do. They can collect, disseminate and analyze everything that you say, post and chat about for their own devices. 
Are there any laws on the books to prevent cyber-stalking? Yes, there are. All 50 states have some form of law which prevents cyberstalking, cyberharassment or cyberbullying. But, not all states have laws in place to protect citizens, particularly children from all three forms of harassment.

Are there any laws which can help me protect my "online identity"? Not yet. But, just this year, President Obama has purposed the National Strategy For Trusted Identities In Cyberspace, which would help private industry to enable people to better protect their online transactions (such as online banking and purchasing), saving of passwords and protection of personal information. 

Does that mean that there are no laws in place for online identity theft?! Yes, there are laws in place, and identity theft is 100% illegal. The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003 (FACT Act) states that consumers have the right to "place fraud alerts on their credit files if they are, or suspect they may become, victims of identity theft; block information on their credit reports that resulted from identity theft; and obtain copies of their credit reports free of charge" (FTC). If you believe that you are a victim of identity theft or would like more information about how to best protect your identity, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a web site dedicated with free information and resources.

And as we average, working Joe's and Jane's might think that we are somehow protected from the evils of the increasingly connected virtual world, there are fewer and fewer places to hide. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that 1 in 5 divorces are caused by Facebook. And in spite of rates of marriage and divorce declining in recent years, "Mark Keenan, managing director of Divorce-Online decided that after determining that the word 'Facebook' appeared in 989 of the company's 5,000 or so most recent divorce petitions, he had Divorce-Online issue a news release in December 2009 stating 'Facebook is bad for your marriage'" (Wall Street Journal). The article rightly states that the sample of people chosen was quite small and was not indicative of real results, and if it hadn't been Facebook it probably would have been something else.

The digital age has brought a new crop of problems for law enforcement and legislatures (federal and state) which are constantly attempting to keep up with changing technology, usage and personalization. And as the first generation of young people are coming up, who have only known life "online" it will continue to prompt new hazards and questions of who knew what when, where they were on the planet when they knew it and what they did with that information. 

NPR's evening news broadcast, All Things Considered aired an interesting story recently which loosely related to the Murdoch/Tabloid scandal. Hostess Michelle Norris spoke to "Christopher Soghoian with the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University about how protect your voice mail account" (NPR). One of the tips that Mr. Soghoian gave, was to be aware that not all cell phone security mechanisms are created equal. He said on the program that through a technology called "spoofing" nearly anyone could crack into your voice mail, depending on your carrier. Mr. Soghoian suggested that while Verizon and T-Mobile have taken measures to protect their customers voice mail settings from "spoofing" that AT&T and Sprint customers are very susceptible to having their voice mail settings cracked with ease, even with a pass code. 

It's a brave new world and the time for naivete and lax security of your personal information has come and gone. The threat of contracting a cyber-virus is more real and in some cases more lethal than an actual virus and the threat of getting your "virtual" identity high-jacked is just as threatening as loosing yourself.


  1. I can't disagree that keeping tabs on one's kids is important, but I do not think we can see ourselves as "kids" to the government or media...who should have not only no right but no ability to view our online lives. Yes, technology has blown up in the past few years, and the fact if the matter is, people haven't quite adjusted to it. We're becoming addicts, letting our devices pull our attention away from roads and kids...and ethics. Just because we CAN look into someone else's life online doesn't mean we should. By the same token, just because the meta data is out there, doesn't mean anyone has the right to it. I can't help but feel that even though, for example, I'm typing this online right now, this is MY communication, these are my words, I own the content and feel i should own the associated metadata. But I do not. the metadata belongs to facebook, twitter, apple, etc. So at what point do the words stop belonging to me? At what point are these no linger my thoughts? intellectual property is being breached as well as the boundaries of privacy. clearly, we need to, as global communicators, understand what the definition of privacy actually is in this day and age and what actually does "belong to" us. It's sad to see a world wrapped up in communicating through as many media as are readily available, but not hearing the screaming metadata behind the message.

  2. About eight years ago or so, when teens were all getting their first cell phones, my daughter's small-town Kansas drop-out boyfriend "hacked" into her AT&T voice mail. She didn't have a password at the time, so it was simple. He could listen to her messages and change her greeting. It seemed to be pretty common knowledge how to do this at the time so I'm really wondering why the big to-do about this now. There should be more concern/articles on how to prevent and detect spy programs on cell phones which can be a lot more damaging. Getting into someone's voice mail hardly qualifies for the term "hacking".


Please be kind with your words. I have no intent to offend or ridicule with my blog. I will take into serious consideration, anything which is brought to my attention.