The circulating privacy threat warnings miss the boat

This week I’ve had multiple people send me warnings they saw on Facebook about a new privacy threat, which, after I read about it, really appears just to be something that aggregates information already available about you.

Perhaps not coincidentally, PC Magazine has a piece telling you what you need to do if you’re really concerned about privacy and really want to disappear.,2817,2376023,00.asp
I think the big problem is that people want it both ways. They want to be easy to find so that old classmates and former coworkers can find them if they want, and so that people who share common interests can find them if they want, but they don’t want marketers to be able to find them.

People seem offended that there’s a web site out there that knows your name, your address, and the assessed value of your house.

But guess what? There already was such a site, and it’s not going away. It’s your local county’s web site. Names, addresses, and assessment values are all a matter of public record. I know the names of every previous owner of my house. I know how much real estate tax they paid. I know if they were late paying it. I know, because I can go to the county government’s web site, punch in the address, and find it.

When a house goes up for sale and I think I might be interested in it, I look at what’s available in the public records about it. I can do it in less time than it takes to drive to the county government building. I think that’s a good thing.

There may be a picture too. Google and Microsoft are racing each other to photograph every physical address in the world. That’s not entirely a bad thing. When I go somewhere I’ve never been, I punch the address into Google, click Street View, and have a look around. It’s easier to not miss the destination when I have an idea what it looks like. And what the buildings next door look like.

Frankly, I’m not sure that being capable of being found is entirely a bad thing. A magazine editor tracked me down this summer after I stated on a forum that I had opinions about his magazine and his main competitor, and things that one of them was doing very wrong. He found my phone number, called me, and asked me about my concerns. It won’t be long now before he’ll be publishing something I wrote. That’s not a bad thing. At least not for me.

Marketers will find you anyway. I get tons of spam, though not as much as I used to get. I even get the occasional unsolicited phone call, even though I’ve signed up for my state’s don’t-call list. Politicians are exempt, so I still get phone calls from people telling me how I need to vote. Depending on how loudly my kids are screaming, I either give them an earful (of me, not the kids) or I hang up on them. Sometimes I get phone calls from people who can claim a former business relationship and therefore the legal right to call me. Sometimes that’s OK, and sometimes it isn’t.

And people show up at my door trying to sell me stuff too. That doesn’t bother me, as long as they’re polite. They’re just trying to make a living. Every once in a great while, I’ll buy from them.

And the stores I shop at don’t know precisely what I eat for lunch, but they have a really good idea. They know even more about the diaper habits of my infant son. That doesn’t bother me all that much, because they give me coupons so I keep buying it from them, instead of from somewhere else.

But I don’t get a ton of solicitations, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not because I go out of my way to make myself invisible. Being invisible is a bad career move for me.

I don’t get a lot of solicitations because I’m hard to sell to. Even the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t knock on my door. They know they’re wasting their time.

Develop a reputation as someone who doesn’t buy stuff he doesn’t need, and people don’t waste their time with you. And the best way to develop that reputation is to not buy stuff you don’t need.

There’s another thing you can do. You can plant misinformation, in order to harm people’s confidence in that data.

When you fill out a warranty card, often it will ask for information about your occupation and income and stuff like that. Tick the wrong box. You’re an accountant? Tell ’em you’re a dentist. It’s probably better if what you tell them is halfway believable–if you claim to be a dentist making less than $20,000 a year, they’ll probably just discard everything but your name and address. But they’ll keep your name, so give them the wrong middle initial. As a sometime genealogist, I can tell you that conflicting information ruins confidence.

If someone doesn’t need my address, I give them an address that’s wrong, but halfway believable. Claiming to live in a $2 million house would call undue attention to myself. Claiming to live in a shack that HUD recently sold for $1 either casts too much suspicion, or profiles you as a real-estate speculator.

And if you don’t want to be tracked, about the only choice you have is to do what PC Magazine says in the link above, and add one more thing.

Stay off the Internet. Entirely.

It’s possible to know who you are, based on your computer. Each computer has unique characteristics like a fingerprint, based on things like the fonts it has installed, and what software it has installed. Since virtually all software gets periodic updates, no two computers are likely to be identical. And if two are identical, then that probably means it’s the same person. Someone who’s determined enough can track that. A security researcher has dubbed this the “evercookie” and has documented it if you’re interested in the gory details:

Nobody really knows how many people are doing this, or something similar to it. Those who might be doing it aren’t talking, because they don’t want to be found out.

By using very specific web browsers in privacy mode, it’s possible to defeat the evercookie. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t someone out there with something that works slightly better. I can’t prove it either way.

But before you run out and get your tinfoil hats, most likely the people who are doing it just have the motive to feed you advertising for products that you’re already interested in. There’s no point in showing me an ad for a Buick Le Sabre…

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