Technology and Your Privacy: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Consumer protection

How much does Big Brother know about your daily life – and how much can you control?1370293_50774800

Black Boxes in Cars

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is pushing for black boxes to be mandated for all cars by September 1, 2014. While these data recorders could pick up on safety hazards or design problems in cars, many feel black boxes are a bit too invasive. What may alarm you most is that your car could already have a black box installed; auto makers have been tucking the devices into most new cars for years.

These “event data recorders” could help engineers and government safety officials quickly notice safety hazards or design problems in cars – something that could possibly have picked up on child deaths from air bags sooner, for example. However, a black box can track a car’s location and speed, which could give insurance companies more ways to snoop on drivers and increase their rates. Critics also dislike the possibility of this information getting into the hands of law enforcement. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to establish privacy safeguards for black boxes and uphold Privacy Act protections.

Cell Phone and GPS Records

Lawmakers are wrangling over when (or whether) law enforcement can peek at suspects’ cell phones for evidence. Some judges have compared text messages with voice mail messages that could be easily overheard – therefore making them unprotected by privacy laws.

Another debate rages as to whether smartphone records deserve privacy protection — or whether they are “business records” belonging to phone companies. reports that – according to ACLU – cell phone carriers keep information like call records (including cell towers used), text message details and actual text message content for varied lengths of time. While Verizon and Sprint only keep call records for a year or two, AT&T and T-mobile hang on to your call record details for 5 to 7 years. Verizon holds on to your text message content for 3 to 5 days, while the other three major carriers don’t keep it; AT&T and T-Mobile do, however, keep track of who you text for 5 to 7 years, while the other two only keep the info for up to 12 to 18 months. What’s fortunate is that law enforcement does need a warrant to get the information.  Your smartphone keeps detailed records of where you’ve been and your communications (and any data synched to your phone from your computer); law enforcement does need a court order to search your phone.

By tracking your cell phone someone can learn the details of your life – your daily routine (and any deviations from it), where you go to the doctor, where you go to lunch, and other things law enforcement might not have been able to detect before. This information is obviously something you wouldn’t want to get out there – especially without a warrant.

Internet Cookies

Have you noticed ads for things you’ve recently done a search for keep popping up on every website you visit?  Many companies track your internet activity — including what you buy on Amazon, what you watch on YouTube and Hulu, and other things that can help companies know how to better advertise to you. While you can change your cookie storage settings in your browser, Flash cookie software — which is harder to delete — reports your activity to publishers. Many lawsuits have been filed over companies using Flash cookies invasively; in the meantime, you can change your Adobe Flash settings to help better protect your privacy.

Technology has allowed a mass amount of information about your personal life to become easily accessible; how the law will safeguard your privacy in the future is looking messy. For now, it’s most important to know where and how your data is being collected in order to better control what information you make available.