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3 privacy violations you shouldn't worry about

Mike Elgan | April 22, 2014
In the past few years, the public has been confronted with hitherto unimaginable levels of personal privacy invasions.

In the past few years, the public has been confronted with hitherto unimaginable levels of personal privacy invasions.

We've learned that the NSA has been aggressively scooping up phone metadata and even building a giant data center in Utah called "Bumblehive" for the purpose of recording every phone call and much more. The facility is so massive that it will be able to store a yottabyte of surveillance data — an amount of data so large you may not have heard of the number before. (A yottabyte is 1 trillion terabytes.)

And we learned this month that a flaw called Heartbleed in the security layer of two-thirds of all encrypted websites potentially puts all of our information at risk of being exposed — and that includes our passwords and even our encryption certificates.

And we just learned this week that the FBI's face-recognition database is on an incredible growth spurt. The database contained 13.6 million images last summer and is on track to contain 52 million by next year. The database links faces to names, addresses, phone numbers and other personal data. Law enforcement agencies will be able to take pictures from store security systems or ATMs — or any photo — and run it through the database and know exactly who you are. The FBI's own documents show that millions of these images have nothing to do with crimes or criminals.

So the people who are worried about threats to their privacy are justified in their anxiety.

The trouble is, far too many people are freaked out about the wrong things.

I'm going to give you examples of three technologies that are regarded as threats to our privacy — technologies that a great many people seem to be vexed about, but only because of muddled or misinformed thinking — and then I'm going to spell out why they're nothing to worry about.

Here they are:

1. Apple iBeacon

Apple's iBeacon, also known as "indoor GPS," is designed to provide very accurate information about a user's location, indoors or outdoors, for a variety of purposes. Apple, for example, uses iBeacon with its Apple Store app. If you're standing in the iPad section, it can pop up information and promotions for iPads.

Museums are using iBeacon for guided tours via smartphone. Stadiums are using iBeacon to tell people stuck in long beer lines where they can find a shorter line. And, of course, department stores are using it to promote products and provide customer information and customer service.

Beacon technology in general, and Apple's iBeacon in particular, doesn't get the attention and mindshare that it deserves. It's a transformative idea that will change everything. But to the extent that people do pay attention, they tend to oppose it as yet another encroachment upon our personal privacy.


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