Several years ago I worked as a paramedic/firefighter for a very small department. We had a residential internet connection, and there was no real policy that spelled out appropriate use of this connection or any computer hooked up to it. Consequently, we accessed massive amounts of porn. In fact, many of us became connoisseurs of the medium. We often had contests to see who could “find the sickest crap on the internet in 10 minutes.” A fair and impartial judge would weigh the results and declare a winner. Often times the prize was not having to pay for a meal, or getting out of chores. Around the same period, one of our sergeants was doing research for a building collapse course. In his research he would access many sites that reported on terrorism. He also delved into seedier sides of the internet where terrorists and various activists groups had message boards in order to conduct his research.
And then one day, we got a phone call.
As I said, this was a small fire department. The police department in this same town was also very small, and we were familiar with all the officers. One of those officers had been hired by the FBI a few years previously, and it was this man who had called us.
He told us that his phone call was just a friendly warning. His new job was in cybercrimes and apparently our little firehouse had been “red flagged” somehow as a connection to be investigated for “suspicious activity.” He made a few comments about us obviously being “a nasty bunch of sick bastards who need a life” and offered other constructive criticism. He called as a friendly warning to get us to tone it down before someone in the bureau decided to investigate further into our excesses. Upon asking him how they knew what we were looking at he replied, “Oh…we know at a lot of stuff. We know exactly what pages you are looking at. Sick fuckers…”
This experience has always stuck with me. I was being watched and judged without my knowledge. No one presented themselves. No one showed me a warrant. No one even asked me any questions. This was in the years shortly after 9/11, perhaps in 2002 or 2003. This may lead the reader to conclude that FBI agents were utilizing the Patriot Act to find possible terrorists. These agents were just doing their jobs, right? But if this is true, why on earth would they have been monitoring the porn and message board habits of a Mayberry-sized fire department? What kind of net had they cast to retrieve this information?
But that was ten years ago. Fast forward to today. Not only is the Patriot Act still in full force, but our online movements are being monitored by private interests as well.
I just got done reading a book by Eli Pariser called ‘The Filter Bubble‘. This book outlines in shocking detail the lengths that certain companies and websites go to track your online movements. This information is complied and sold in order to specifically target you as a consumer for personalized advertising. This personalization doesn’t stop with advertising. It persists into web searches, social media, news streams, and your total online experience until you find yourself inside the bubble described by Pariser.
What do these companies know about you? Everything apparently. The biggest data mining company is Acxiom. Acxiom and other companies like them build a dossier on you with your social security number, driving record, shopping habits, likes, dislikes, and interests. If a company wishes to obtain a list of medical professionals between the ages of 35 and 40 who are heterosexual, vote Democrat, drive ford trucks, and like Brad Pitt movies the information is available. This information (your information) is sold to companies in order to target you, sell you products, and sway your opinion.
And no, I am not being paranoid. This is completely real. And guess what, Acxiom was once compromised by a hacker for almost two years and much of that information was leaked. They have been compromised a few times…that we know of.
So it boils down to this: companies you’ve never heard of are collecting vast amounts of information about you without your knowledge in order to sell it to the highest bidder so that you can further go in debt buying stuff you don’t need with money you don’t have so that you can be one of the lemmings that patriotically supports our mindless consumer culture. And by the way, your government is fine with this and is an occasional client of this system.
Do you want to opt out?
Acxiom actually provides you with a way to opt out, assuming you trust them. But I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about really opting out.
Opting out may just become the new subject of this blog. My EMS days are thankfully behind me. Don’t worry, I will post a story or two every now and then. But I obviously don’t post with the frequency that I used to. One of my other big interests has been computer hacking. However, the kind of hacking I do is not the usual stuff you see portrayed on TV. (Which is usually horribly inaccurate.) No, the kind of hacking I do is the kind that allows the average Joe to stroll around the internet unnoticed. I like to find ways to maintain privacy and anonymity so I can avoid the trappings of our consumer culture.
As an EMS instructor I learned a long time ago that someone who is knowledgeable in a subject may be an awful teacher. This is usually doubly true for hackers who usually aren’t the most sociable people I have ever come across. I have lurked around many hacker websites over the years, and it has always amazed me why someone would go to the trouble of running a message board if they are just going to tell everyone who comes to them with a question to piss off. But I am not like that. I am a nerd with people skills and I like to teach.
So what I would like to do is write a series of articles that take the average computer user, and educate them to the level where they are savvy in the ways of the force. Companies like Acxiom and your representatives in Washington don’t really care much about your right to free speech and privacy. But maybe you do. And with knowledge comes power. You don’t have to be a lemming. You don’t have to be a patriotic little consumer who pays 19% interest and has all his movements tracked. So I think this will be my new project, educating you on how to opt out.