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Baby under the radar
Baby steps to protect your data-Illustration by Chris Dichtel for Silicon Valley Watcher”

Nick Rosen was on BBC radio Tuesday 6th November talking about his book How to live Off-grid: journeys outside the System about being watched, privacy, identity fraud, the use and misuse of personal data.

You can listen to it here if you’re quick – it will only be available until around 12 noon GMT on Tuesday 13th November when the next program replaces it. Nick’s interview starts about 70 minutes into the three hour program, and he talks about how to get under the radar of the the Big Brother surveillance society.

It is amazing how vast a trail of personal data we leave behind us as we go about out daily life. All our non-cash financial transactions, who we phone and email, what we visit online.

This has expanded exponentially in recent years, even our physical movements are observable through CCTV – some have said a single commute to and from London to work may be captured on 300 such cameras, mobile phone signals, London’s Oystercard (a transport season ticket). If road pricing happens there will likely be chips in cars to monitor their movements. And who knows what RFID (radio frequency identification) tags might end up being used for.

Then there are all those records that were once on paper now steadily being incorporated into gigantic databases, the UK’s NHS – National Health Service – personal medical data being a recent important one. Many of these changes DO bring benefits for us as users of services, for those who operate them to process efficiently. But they have their downside, too.

Finance companies are becoming increasingly adept at paying attention to all your relevant behavior. They know when you miss payments on mortgage, loans and credit cards to anyone, or just make your minimum payment, or get another loan or credit card. They use this to target you with new loans or in deciding to increase or decrease your credit limit or interest rate.

Supermarket loyalty cards know what you buy and target you with tailored offers. When online ‘cookies’ do their best to track you, primarily to target you with advertising. Best you don’t buy too much of anything that might be useful for bomb making like hydrogen peroxide (a bleach and solvent) or sodium chlorate weedkiller, you might come to someone’s attention and then ‘they’ will really be watching you.

Perhaps the crux is: there is so much personal data that it is damned hard to process it for surveillance purposes for everyone all of the time. So, if there is anyone out there doing serious watching they will have to be selective but, if they really do want to watch you, be sure, be very sure, they will have access to plenty of your data. Some of this information is still hard to process – person recognition from images, word recognition in audio – but it’s steadily becoming more feasible.

My biggest concern about identity cards is they will provide a single unique identifier to link much of your data together. You can be certain that if identity cards are introduced you will need to provide your personal ‘number’ before you can do many things. Currently there is a hotch potch of different numbers making it more difficult to relate computerised information about you.

But big brother is probably not your greatest risk at the moment. ‘Identies’ are useful. They enable someone so inclined to obtain money, information, goods and services at your expense. You are often protected against that direct monetary cost, in which case the banks or whoever pays it but there is, inevitably, an indirect monetary cost to all of us given that protection. The inconvenience of having your identity stolen can be immense, ask anyone it’s happened to, and can plague you for years.

It’s prudent, therefore, to take care of your identity and treat it like the valuable possession it is. These links should help you learn more:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_security
http://www.eff.org/issues/privacy
http://www.privacyinternational.org/
http://netsecurity.about.com/

Nick’s article in The Observer, “Ten ways to thwart Big Brother” is here:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2200584,00.html

Taking care yourself is not total protection, though. Your identity can be compromised due to incompetence or criminality in many places. It’s a good idea to have dormant backups of useful parts of your identity: bank account, credit cards, email addresses, just in case.

Even though the last few years have seen significant erosion of our personal liberties and privacy, for now I don’t think big brother is seriously watching me. That’s because I’m not paranoid.

Yet.

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site

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