There is a current court case that involves a school that provides laptops for its students. The students are allowed to take the laptops home. These laptops had video cameras, and the school would occasionally activate the webcam of a laptop to try to figure out where it was. They activated the camera of high school student Blake Robbins and took a picture. It seems that he had some candy visible in the picture and the school system decided it looked like drugs that he was taking or selling.
After Robbins was disciplined for drug use/sales, he sued the school system basically saying that not only was he falsely accused, but that they should have never turned the camera on in the first place. You can read some of the details of the case at Wikipedia. I think there are at least a few people working for the school that are committing career suicide here. Even if they thought the student had drugs in the picture, I can’t imagine why they would have acted on that information since taking a picture inside a student’s house is obviously a huge invasion of privacy. Even just admitting that you take pictures of students in their bedrooms seems like it would be enough to get your servers confiscated on child porn laws.
It is possible that more details will emerge that will make the school’s actions seem merely stupid instead of egregiously stupid, which is the way things stand right now. Regardless, this case is a good example of how important it is to understand privacy, particularly as it relates to technology you use.
Most companies have a policy that basically says “we own everything on your computer and can look at it whenever we feel like it.” I know that some people think this means they can ask for your computer to look at it. That isn’t the case. Many computers have software installed that will let someone in IT pull up your screen and watch “over your shoulder” without your knowledge.
I haven’t heard of any companies activating a laptop’s camera to check in on their employees, but I’m pretty sure it happens. It is just that companies probably aren’t dumb enough to tell someone they were being fired for something that was discovered on their webcam, as the school administrators had done.
If you are using your employer’s Internet access, anything you send or receive is fair game for them to look at. I know some people think that using HTTPS to connect to web-mail will keep their private emails private. This isn’t the case. If your employer can see your screen, it doesn’t matter if your email is viewed over an encrypted connection. Also, some employers use keyloggers that will keep track of everything you type on the keyboard. In addition, web pages are cached locally and someone that knows what they are doing can pull them out of the cache.
Even if you aren’t using your company’s Internet connection, you still need to be aware of how people can see what you are doing. I was in college when my university wired all the rooms for Internet. With a bit of fiddling in my room, we discovered we could watch all the traffic for our entire dorm room. This meant that, every five minutes, we’d see everyone’s username and password go across the wire when their email program checked their email. You could also see who was in what chat room and what they were saying. And we weren’t doing anything shady like breaking into a server–we were simply watching all the bits of information that the system was transmitting into our dorm room over the network cable. (This was in 1995 and most schools now have a policy that specifically prohibit what we were doing.) This is worth thinking about when you fire up a connection at Starbucks. The signals you are sending to and from their wireless router are free game for anyone in the general vicinity.
It is becoming easier and easier to post information to social media sites. My Blackberry can quickly send a photo to Facebook where I can share it with all my friends. However, just because you can share something doesn’t mean that you should. Many people have lost out on potential jobs because of something they posted on Facebook or elsewhere on the web. What might seem like a funny party picture may end up being the main Google hit for your name found by a potential employer. At least Michael Phelps knew what people were giving him grief about. You may end up suffering from a photo or rant without ever having the luxury of knowing what people are thinking about you.
I try to be careful about posting travel information until I’m back. I don’t really want it to be public that my house is going to be empty for the next two days while I go on a trip. This is surprisingly difficult. If a friend is having a wedding, I can’t say anything like “can’t wait to see you” without exposing the fact that I’m going to the wedding. Fortunately, my obscure travel plans aren’t the only thing that we use to protect our house. Neighbors, house sitters, dogs, etc. all come into play as well. Still, it is good to be just a bit paranoid and ask yourself “what could someone do with this information” before posting something online. (There is even a site called Please Rob Me that compiles all the posts of people saying that they are away from home.)
Pictures and files have hidden fields called Metadata. When you take a picture, it will usually include things like the make and model of your camera, exposure information, and (if supported) your GPS coordinates. Cell phone cameras typically have the GPS coordinate capabilities if it is turned on, so think about this. You post a photo of your new big-screen TV, and suddenly the entire world knows the exact coordinates of that television. Pretty useful information for a thief if you tell everyone you are going out of town for the weekend.
Some pictures even carry information that show what the original photograph looked like. This isn’t a big deal if you simply cropped the picture to make it better. However, a TechTV host learned about metadata the hard way when she posted some photos cropped to a headshot, but the meta data showed the full photo in which she was less than fully clothed.
It isn’t just pictures that carry this information. Word documents often contain your company name, your name and sometimes various revisions. Dennis Rader, the serial murderer from Kansas, was caught when police tracked the document he sent on a disk back to the computer at his church where he created it. (I think he wanted to get caught. He asked the police if they could trace his floppy, and when they said “no,” he sent it in instead of using paper.)
Most GPS units in your car have a HOME setting. You hit HOME, and the unit will figure out how to get to your house. Some theives have started breaking into cars at sporting events and stealing the GPS units and any garage door openers they can find. The GPS takes them to the individual’s home, and the opener gets them in quickly and easily.
A lot of phones have applications that will let you track your friends and family using the phone’s GPS. If it is completely private and you know everyone with access, that might be fine, but some do things like post your location to Twitter or your blog. This isn’t necessarily the information that you want to have out there.
If someone gets your cell phone, what good would that do them? More than you might think. Here is a story that is floating around that I haven’t been able to confirm, but gives you an idea of what someone could do with your phone address book.
A woman lost her purse and cell phone. By the time she realized it and called her husband, the thieves had already texted the contact named “Hubby” with a message saying “I can’t remember our debit card pin. What did we change it to?”, and cleared out their checking account. So beware if your spouse is suddenly texting you for information that could give access to all your finances.
Of course, the address book works for good as well. I was in line with my two-year-old waiting for a butterfly ride at an amusement park when the two youngsters in front of me found a cell phone on the ground. They asked me what to do with it, so I took it and called the most recently called number. A lady answered saying “Greg?”. I said, “Is Greg missing his cell phone?” I told her where I was and she got the phone back for her husband.
I’m not trying to scare you away from using technology. There are a lot of good things that technology can do for you. If you live in complete fear, you’ll never leave your house in the first place. Of course, staying at home can be dangerous, too. You might get hit by a meteor. It is worth understanding that some of the things you make public can provide people with ill intent very detailed information about where and who you are. You can’t live under a rock, but understanding what information you are making available is important.