Tag Archives: privacy

Big Brother is watching you

It’s quite funny looking back at the olden days when 1984 was still a future date on the calendar. 1984 was published in 1949, the year before I was born (how about that?). I read the book at school, I think, and I remember the discussion when THAT year finally arrived. Well, that year passed by with barely a whimper. Computers were still toys for playing games, or bloody great edifices used by banks and the Department of Defence. A wall still split Berlin. People still had to read paper books and the Post Office delivered letters. The IBM PC was only just beginning to make its bid for the hearts and minds of home users – even with the truly awful IBM XT with its 4-colour, lousy resolution screen and its measly 360kb floppy drive. And the Internet was science fiction.

Maybe George Orwell’s conceptions about the future didn’t quite fit the real 1984 – but I think the world has caught up in the last decade or so, indeed, leaving his imagination in its wake as it rushed past.

Recently I (and many others) have struggled with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (EU) 2016/679, where all web sites which receive visits from EU residents must disclose how they use information they collect about people. Lately there have been calls for rules about how facial recognition software is used. It’s all very well for getting through immigration at the airport but the software is playing a much greater role in life in places like China. It’s always sold to the general public as a way of catching criminals and the like, but the fact is the idea of ‘privacy’ is a fast-diminishing concept.

To some extent people accept that there’s a trade-off between privacy and convenience. CCTV in public places helps to make us safer. If Google knows where we are, it can find restaurants for us or recommend a route to a museum. If a facial recognition camera detects a murderer in a crowd at a football match, that’s great. But although the algorithms are getting better, the matches are not always correct, which might be a bit sad for that unfortunate individual in a place like China. Apart from that, everybody’s face is scanned. Big Brother will know (should he care) who went to that football match, even which colour scarf he/she was wearing.

Australia is not a police state, but the Government is collecting more and more information about us. It already has our tax records and if we receive any form of Government subsidy, such as pensions, education support, or unemployment benefits, we have a record with that amorphous octopus, Centrelink. And we also have a Medicare card, which gives us access to subsidised prescription medicines via the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and bulk billing for a few medical services.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the Government’s latest idea is just such a one.

I can imagine the conversation. “I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we collect everybody’s health records and store them so that any doctor can look them up? Let’s say you live in Brisbane and you’re on holiday in Melbourne and get sick. You go to a doctor and that doctor can look up the records to find out what medication you’re on, what you’re allergic to…”

Sounds great, doesn’t it?

What could go wrong? Er… let’s see. What if an insurance fund could find out you had an existing condition? What if you had an embarrassing disease you didn’t want the world to know about? (AIDS, for instance) What if the information held about you was just plain wrong? (Here’s an example) But that wouldn’t happen, and of course we can trust the bureaucrats to keep our data safe and private. Here’s what the department itself has to say about these issues.

Remember that locked filing cabinet somebody bought at a secondhand shop? It turned out to be full of recent, confidential cabinet papers. Oops. Here’s the story.

According to the GDPR rules people must opt in to any scheme collecting private data. But this is Australia. The new MyHealth record is going to be created for you whether you want it or not, administered under the ubiquitous MyGov umbrella. They’ve been very quiet about that, and even quieter about being able to opt out. Thanks to Janet Albrechtsen, a respected journalist (a real one) with The Australian for writing an article about this. (No link because it’s a subscription paper.) The comments it attracted were interesting. Quite a few doctors elected to opt out of the scheme because of fears about accuracy as well as privacy.

Based on several comments and concerns, I’ve opted out. You can opt out of the scheme until 15 October 2018. Follow this link to find out how.

It seems to me 1984 was a long time coming – but it’s even bleaker than Orwell envisaged.


The Problem with Privacy

I suppose the biggest news of the week has been that Cambridge Analytica has sold the data of fifty million or so Facebook users. Am I shocked? Not really. Do I think it was a good thing to do? Not at all. Am I surprised? You guessed it.

I was reluctant to join Facebook at first. I mean, who was going to use this system? Not somebody like me. It’s pretty obvious I changed my mind, and I have no regrets. My FB profile is public. To some extent, that’s because I write books, and if readers (YAY) want to connect with me, they can. But I’m careful about what I post. It’s usually pictures I’ve taken, or links to a blog post or two. I rarely, if ever, post pictures of people, and there’s very little private information in my FB profile. No address or phone number, no interests, no work history. All of that allows FB to target its ads. So old farts like me get ads about meeting suave seniors in my area, lots of weight-loss products (the nerve), retirement homes, beauty products, clothing, shoes… Those last three really show how little they know about me. 😀

I don’t play any of the games. I confess I occasionally weaken and do a quiz, but FB does warn you what you’ll be giving to the people who wrote the (usually stupid) quiz for the privilege of coming up with a stupid answer. If it wants my friends list, I suddenly decide I’m really not that interested in who I was in my previous life. Because that’s the thing. Innocently accept some of these external apps and you’re gifting a pile of info about OTHER PEOPLE to the authors. To me, that’s the bit that stinks.

Everybody’s heard the saying, “If it’s something you wouldn’t want your Grandma to know – don’t put it on the web”. It’s a good suggestion. And I am eternally grateful that mobile phone cameras weren’t around when I was in my ‘stupid’ years. You know what I mean – I look at the photos of passed-out young women during the Spring carnival etc. and shudder.

Will Facebook survive? Of course it will. Like the banks, it’s too big to fail, and it serves a useful purpose. In my case it allows me to keep contact with other writers who I met years ago in the now-defunct Authonomy. I’m also in contact with family and friends in distant parts, and FB can be a terrific source of what’s happening in the world through shared links. Provided you check what you’re told. On FB, Snopes is your friend. Here’s an example.  Bulldog bites pedophile’s penis off as he tried to rape sleeping chlidren. This story was shared on FB. Attracts all the feels from most of us, and comes complete with pictures. A lot of people were sucked in. I had my doubts about any bloke climbing through a window with his pants off, or for the dog waiting until he was undressed before attacking, so I looked it up in Snopes. And here’s the answer. Caution is always wise on any social media. Those stories about Russian hackers? Quite a few were fake accounts on FB, spreading misinformation.

There are risks, of course. Bullying and troll behaviour is rife. It hasn’t affected me, but I recently heard about one young cover designer who was driven to attempt suicide by a concerted attack on her – in cyberspace. It’s not an isolated case, and the perpetrators can hide behind a computer screen, secure in their anonymity.


If you provide personal information to companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple – and let’s face it, you can’t avoid it – there is a trade-off. They can show you ads that might interest you, based on your browsing behaviour. (Ha. Just recently that would be self-defense courses – doing some research for the WIP). Amazon shows me books I might want to read, based on my previous searches. That’s useful. Google will show me restaurants where I am, and gives me directions on how to get there.

Social media is like most powerful gadgets – used with caution, it’s fine. If you have kids, please, please pay attention to what they’re doing on a computer.

And here’s a picture of an outback suset