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Telling on Ourselves

We guard ourselves against digital snoops and identity thieves but continue to tell the world about our drinking habits, romantic peccadilloes and what we really think about Brian in accounting

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Mark Allen Miller

techPrivacy has been a hot topic lately, in particular the prospect of our electronic communications being monitored by shadowy agencies, our movements tracked by CCTV cameras, our DNA used to determine the likelihood of our committing a crime or contracting a debilitating disease. While the issues here are murkier than a witch’s brew, one thing is clear: The greatest threat to our privacy is ourselves.

Consider a recent survey by recruitment firm CareerBuilder, which found that 52 percent of U.S. companies trawl social network sites to help them whittle down lists of potential hires. Of those who ended up on the cutting-room floor, 29 percent had made derogatory comments about race, religion or gender; 46 percent had posted provocative images; 40 percent indicated excessive alcohol intake or use of drugs; and 34 percent badmouthed their current employers.

Even when you’ve landed your dream job, you are by no means free of the all-seeing eye of social media. Take Alejandro Rhett, a J. Crew executive who was recently compelled to help fire some of the 175 employees that the company was laying off. Hours after delivering the bad news, he Instagrammed photos of himself cavorting in New York City, some tagged with “Hunger Games” quips. Soon, Rhett too was out of a job.

There are, of course, countless other ways to suffer online humiliation. In May, Adult Friend Finder, a “casual dating website,” was hacked and the personal details (some very personal) of almost 4 million members were stolen.

“Celebrity hacks get all the headlines, but this is significant because it could lead to thousands of ordinary people getting blackmailed,” says Ken Westin, senior security analyst at Tripwire, a firm that advises Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. 

A lot of the time, online blackmail is personal, but there is a growing entrepreneurial aspect to the crime. With the declining effectiveness of email scams involving vacation crises (“I’ve lost my cards, my cash, everything”) and liquidity problems (“I have $1.7 million frozen in a Lagos savings account”), cybercriminals are turning to what is snappily known as “sextortion.”

“Trying to extort people by threatening to humiliate them is on the increase, which is not surprising, given that the Internet is now basically a database of all of us,” says Westin. “As more data is breached and information sold on underground markets, it can create an incredibly vivid profile of every individual.” But it’s not only individuals who are at risk. Last year’s Sony hack discharged a slew of embarrassing corporate emails. No doubt, the next victim will be aware of the “Producer Scott Rudin thinks Angelina Jolie is a ‘spoiled brat’” fiasco.

You don’t have to have posted images of yourself skinny-dipping in Cabo or to have listed “opiates” as a hobby to be exposed to unwanted scrutiny. Chat data from Facebook’s Messenger app can be used to pinpoint our locations so accurately that people we barely know could predict our movements. And while government spooks might not care if you claim you’re at the office when you’re really at Scores, your spouse (or boss) might.

Indeed, with a growing number of connected devices whispering about the minuscule details of our lives, it is no wonder so many of us are feeling paranoid. Our car dashboards already reveal not just our routes but the speed we drive. Our smartmeter knows in which rooms of our houses we spend the most time. Smart TVs relay our voice commands to conglomerates. Soon, our fridges may blab to the servers at our doctors’ clinics each time we reach for the cheesecake instead of an apple.

And now, many of us have begun to release a new torrent of information via Apple Watches and other wearables. What first looked to be a fun way of competing with workout buddies is already being used by interested parties to track individuals’ health and fitness. Fitbit, for instance, has a deal in place with HumanaVitality, which provides discounts on health insurance in return for using a tracker.

This trend makes security experts uneasy. “I can see a time in the not-too-distant future when, by law, we must have a tracker in our cars,” says David Emm, a principal researcher at cybersecurity outfit Kaspersky Lab. For Emm, the big thing we need to remember is that, with much of this information, we can opt out. “When people begin to realize just how many of the apps they download are tracking their movements,” he says, “they will get into the habit of disabling them.”

Westin, meanwhile, says he is already seeing signs of increased wariness among social network users. “Teens are starting to share far less information on Facebook,” he says. This, apparently, is largely due to the fact that the social network is increasingly being used by people in older age groups. “Nobody wants their parents reading what they’ve been up to,” Westin adds. “That would really be embarrassing.”

Berlin-based writer Boyd Farrow would like to stress that he is not the same Berlin-based writer responsible for the YouTube smash “Boyd the Talking Belly Button.”

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