Thursday, July 21, 2011

RANT: My Personal Information Is Personal.

Recently, Google suspended my Google+ account. They didn't really inform me of what exactly I did wrong, but they just suspended my account and refuse to answer any of my inquiries of why they froze my account. Instead, their notice just points me to a list of "community standards." From this list, the only thing that I can see that I'm not doing right is putting my real name as my display name.

For the most part, I try not to use my real name on web sites that I don't consider as being important or critical to my life. The reason for this is that a couple of years ago I got burned from having my personal information stolen from a web service that claimed to be secure. From that point on, I decided that the only people that need to know my real information are the government, my credit card/bank sites, and my hospital's website. Any other sites, don't really need my real name or personal details unless I'm buying something and they need to verify a form of payment such as my credit card.

I think a bigger question people should be asking is why does Google truly need you to post your real name and your actual personal details on your profile. Google+ believes this prevents spam and fake accounts which I don't exactly know how that would work since I can already see so many fake accounts in G+ complete with fake personal details. Furthermore, there are countless ways to verify an account and some of those methods are already being used Google in some of their other services. Overall, it just leads to more questions.

So why might Google be pushing you to reveal your true identity? It's been proposed by a colleague of mine that Google may be trying to get into the "people search" business. In addition to having access to your Android phones, your Chrome Browser's web surfing history, your Gmail, Blogger posts, Picassa photos, Youtube videos, and the information people volunteer to provide in Google Plus, it makes it very easy for Google to identify and locate people. It's just a matter of connecting the dots and doing a little pattern query on their giant collection of databases and, in theory, Google can then extrapolate and create a very complete profile of who you are with a high degree of certainty.

Now, I have no problem with such a system existing. I think it would be a dream system for people who work in law enforcement or anti-terrorism. It would make it so much easier to find terrorist and fugitives by scanning for their activities and monitoring their online friends. It's basically like having a virtual stake-out without incurring the manpower costs. But Google is not the government or a law enforcement agency. They are a for profit company. They use the information they collect from you to make money for themselves by serving up their business partners advertisements. They'll be able to target and customize advertisements for users based on you wants, desires, profile details, and preferences. They can do this because you posted it somewhere in a blog, in a buzz, or gave it a +1. They can even use your surfing history.

All in all, there's no stopping Google or any other company from doing what they're doing. In reality, they're not doing anything wrong. The user is volunteering all of their personal information by their own accord. It's as if these companies are gun makers. They built the gun but they didn't load the bullets and shoot it. You, the user, the consumer did that. You gave them access to your life because you wanted to part of the in-crowd or to get some fake validation from people that you really don't know. I hope selling your virtual soul was worth it. Don't be surprised if your identity or your life is stolen. It's really not Google's fault. It's your own.

Ultimately, the responsibility of keeping your private & personal information 'private and personal' falls to you. You have to look beyond the social media hype and seriously think about the risk you are taking. If you think you can afford to risk it, then go ahead. It's a free country, you can do whatever you want. Just don't be an idiot and not protect yourself.

Protecting yourself online isn't something that's new. Back in the old days of BBS/IRC/AOL Instant Messaging & chat rooms, users were told not to use their real names or provide their personal data if asked about them by anyone. It's an old simple practice that, combined with common sense, kept most people safe.

Take, for a moment, something parents tell all their children. They tell them not to talk to strangers or to give out details about who they are unless they're talking to a teacher or a police officer. This is instilled in them as a way to protect themselves from harm. Unfortunately, people don't do this when dealing with online activities. This is perhaps because some parent are themselves uncomfortable or uneducated about the real dangers that lurk in World Wide Web. Some only learn their lesson after it's too late and the damage is done. Some might never learn at all. I learned that just because a site says they are secure, it doesn't really mean that your information is totally secure.

To help people understand web security, I'm going to simplify it in terms that is not technical. Imagine if you will that internet web sites and services are giant glass bottles. You put your stuff (your info, pictures, videos, money), in it. Some of these sites/bottles are opaque and some are clear. The bottle's opacity can be considered the as the web site's security and encryption level. The more opaque the bottle, the more it seems to be secure because you can't see what's inside. You might even think that the bottle that is totally opaque is the most secure, but in reality all of these bottles are made out of the same breakable glass. All a bad guy needs to get your stuff is a hammer that's big and strong enough to crack the glass. Nothing is safe on the web. Even Google won't guarantee the safety of your personal information. Remember, it's your information. It's your responsibility.

For parents out there. Please teach your kids to be net savvy. It's sad to see how young teens and children are being feed the bologna that privacy is dead. The inexperience youth is targeted by businesses to handover their information in exchange to play free online games and access to social networks. I've read too many news articles detailing how the identities of young people, including babies, are being stolen and used illegally. For those kids, their future will be a constant struggle to prove their identity. They will have to live with having to keep proving to creditors, employers, and other agencies that they had nothing to do with any fraudulent debt and other financial problems that their faker has incurred.

So if Google Plus wants my real name and personal information, they better explain exactly why they want it and what they are doing with it. The excuse that it's for preventing spam and fake accounts, is poor and they need to try again. Google needs to realize that it's my information, my name, my life, and I have the right not to give it up just to anybody without good cause. In the end, I'm just trying to protect myself. If that's not good enough, then I probably shouldn't be using their service.

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