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Privacy is the new digital obsession, so learn to protect yourself


Privacy is now the big obsession.  Deposit photo

Privacy is now the big obsession. Deposit photo

Privacy is now the big obsession. Deposit photo

In the film 'Her', Joaquin Phoenix's character falls in love with an artificially intelligent virtual companion. At first, the predictive technology system simply observes Phoenix's behaviour. 'She' then starts to react to his behaviour. Finally, she (correctly) anticipates his emotional needs. The film sounds futuristic, but the technology is almost here.

How much privacy are we giving up with our modern digital obsessions? And are there any ways to curb the sharpest edges of intrusion?

Soon, Europe's highest court is expected to rule that data flows between the EU and the US will no longer be protected because US companies and state agencies snoop too much on Europeans.

Yet for most ordinary people, the inclusion of a retina-scanning device in a new smartphone or a pulse-measuring sensor in a web-connected fitness watch is still an exciting perk, not a fearful thing.

But when does a new tech feature cross the line to become a snooping service?

"Our privacy is being attacked on multiple fronts," said Apple chief executive Tim Cook recently at a privacy conference. "I'm speaking to you from Silicon Valley, where some of the most prominent and successful companies have built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information. They're gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetise it."

While Cook may have had competitive issues with arch-rival Google in mind, his analysis isn't wrong. One of the hottest new 'connected home' range of gadgets comes from Nest, a Google-owned company. Nest makes 'smart' thermostats, smoke alarms and webcams. But they're 'smart' because they 'learn' about you as you go about your business. They then use this information to make their daily services more efficient or cheaper or less intrusive. (They also talk to you in a human voice.) While Nest gives you opt-outs to its collection of data-gathering, it's not really possible to get the full benefit if you don't share your personal information with it.

Other services, such as Netflix and Google, conduct similar 'smart learning' as their services interact with you. While we largely accept these benign compromises of our privacy in the name of convenience, the implications for future profiles on us are clear. We are all becoming known entities.

The world's biggest retailer, Amazon, has a patent for a system that knows which products you want to buy and sends them -- even before you order them. It calls this "anticipatory shipping" and says it's trying it out because delays between ordering and receiving purchases "may dissuade customers from buying items from online merchants."

Under the system, Amazon will box and post items it thinks its customers will almost certainly want based on what those customers have bought before.

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The phrase 'if it's free, you are the product' has a lot of truth in it. Google is not giving away unlimited storage for your photos to be nice. It will use your photos, one way or another, to match up advertisers or other paying parties. Facebook is exactly the same. And Pinterest. Twitter would like to get to that point.

The real question is whether data exploitation remains a fair bargain. Are Google search, Gmail and Facebook things for which the benefit outweighs the privacy concern?

In Europe, legislators are taking some measures to reign big web companies in. There's the controversial 'right to be forgotten' law introduced by the European Court Of Justice last year. There are mounting investigations into big firms, particularly Google. And some national data-protection authorities are starting to crack down in a series of decisions, too.

Not all of the latest technology developments support this new, omni-connected vision of things.

The fastest growing social networking and messaging service at present is Snapchat. Its magic sauce is that messages and 'stories' you post auto-delete after a number of seconds (or a maximum of 24 hours). It is an unlikely success story for privacy advocates.

Similarly, the rise of Bitcoin, a virtual currency based as much on privacy and anonymity as on geek-cred or black market accessibility, is regarded by some as an antidote to always-on financial transactions.

And not all tech companies are gunning for your personal information, either.

"You might like these so-called free services," said Apple chief executive Cook. "But we don't think they're worth having your email or your search history or now even your family photos data-mined and sold off for God knows what advertising purpose. And we think someday, customers will see this for what it is."

Cook's point is that Google and Facebook (and others) set up their businesses to trade off your data. Sometime down the line, that could result in a fright at how our personal information is collected by organisations or agencies we didn't know were watching us.

"One day, you'll get in your car and your car will know your calendar, it will know whether you're going shopping, or to work, or to a sporting event, or a music event, and it will have chosen the best route," said Justin Rattner, Intel's director of laboratories and former chief technology officer. "And it will know because it will use its hard sensors such as geo-positioning, time, temperature, compass and elevation as well as soft sensors such as your calendar, your social network, your favourites, and your likes and your dislikes."

How to boost your privacy and frustrate tracking ads

One of the annoying things about 'free' services online is the way that ads track you all over the place. There are a couple of ways to dealing with this.

1 Opt out of being tracked: An organisation called the Digital Advertising Alliance allows you to opt out of so-called 'interest-based' advertising. These are ads that are served to you based on a profile assembled about you for your online behaviour. Over 100 companies, including Facebook, adhere to the opt-out lists by the service. Just visit aboutads.info and opt out.

2 Use 'private' browser sessions: Several web browsers, including Chrome and Safari, offer private browser options that limit the amount of information collected about you by online services. These private browser sessions, such as 'Incognito' in Chrome, are easy to activate.

3 Consider anonymising services such as Tor: If you really want to dial up your anonymity online, using a facility like Tor might be the solution. Tor lets you communicate or browse online while shielding almost any of your personal or location information from online services. It's commonly used as an anti-surveillance communication technique by those in oppressive countries.

How to remain private on Facebook

According to Ipsos MRBI, over 2.5 million of us are Facebook users, which most logging on every day. That means it's now the most widespread forum to easily check fellow citizens' personal information. So how do we tighten up on privacy controls?

1. How to check everything Facebook 'has' on you: Facebook lets you download every photo, update, message and 'like' you ever executed. Just go into the 'general' tab of 'settings' and click 'download a copy of your Facebook settings'. It will take a while but you'll be notified by email when the download is ready to begin.

2. How to control the ads you see: If you post about babies or click 'like' on friends' baby photos, you'll see ads for baby things. You can click or tap the top corner of an ad and you'll see a menu with: 'I don't want to see this' and 'see fewer posts like this'. It even gives you the option of 'hide all ads from [advertiser]'.

3. Remove tags: You can get rid of a tag, but you can't have the actual photo removed. The way to knock out the tag is to select the picture and under the 'options' menu on the picture, choose 'remove tag'. (On a phone, do the same thing except tapping the top right of the screen instead.) If this is a regular thing that happens, you can tweak your account so that anything you're tagged in has to be ticked okay by you first before the tag is published.