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TMCNet:  Electronic devices and services monitor us 24/7, but there are few ways to block them

[January 29, 2013]

Electronic devices and services monitor us 24/7, but there are few ways to block them

Jan 29, 2013 (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Want to live a life completely free from electronic monitoring One where you elude not only online behavioral advertisers and Facebook stalkers, but government agencies and pesky subpoena-wielding lawyers Then try giving up pretty much everything you do every day.

"If you truly wanted to be off the grid in a way that a detective or a sleuth couldn't find anything about you, you couldn't even turn on your home computer," said Jules Polonetsky, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Future of Privacy Forum.

Whether it's home Internet service providers noting an IP address is in use, a video recording at an ATM or a cell phone pinging users' locations off towers, avoiding electronic monitoring for a life on the lam is much easier said than done. Even if the only goal is to avoid tracking of shopping, online surfing or email activities, there is no single magic button that grants privacy from all of the entities monitoring -- and sometimes distributing -- the data.

Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Skype and any sites that use tracking cookies for remembering passwords or recommending good books would be eliminated under a plan for complete electronic privacy.

Beyond cyberspace, users would have to either shut down or toss a number of devices, including smartphones with location-tracking functions, regular cell phones, tablets, Pennsylvania Turnpike EZ Passes and in-car GPS units that actively download new maps and report drivers' locations.

Once the high-tech devices are dumped, users would probably be surprised to know how many seemingly low-tech functions come with high-tech tracking abilities, said Mr. Polonetsky. He noted digital television now allows cable providers to monitor what's being watched in customers homes and most utilities now use smart heat and electricity monitors that record customers' usage.

"I think most people don't even realize the extent to which they're being tracked," said Lorrie Cranor, director of Carnegie Mellon University's CyLab for Usable Privacy and Security.

Ms. Cranor, who also co-directs the university's newly founded master's program in privacy engineering, said recent efforts have lead to more readable privacy policies; the Self Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising, which is led by the Digital Advertising Alliance; and the revision and implementation of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, first introduced in 1998.

Ms. Cranor pointed out the European Union's Data Protection Directive grants consumers specific rights across all sectors of business, but she doesn't expect to see anything similar in the United States anytime soon.

"The approach we've taken in the United States is sector-specific laws and self-regulatory plans," she said. "Private self-regulation has been getting a lot of support in Washington." America might not have a blanket approach to electronic privacy, but there are more than enough piecemeal options for the average user to block monitoring by friends and advertisers. The Self Regulatory Program for Online Behavioral Advertising's Ad Choices program ( allows consumers to opt out of targeted ads from more than 400 advertising companies nationwide.

For protected searches, Mr. Polonetsky recommends users apply programs such as Tor, free software that routes online activity through remote servers across the globe, making it difficult to pinpoint the original source of the search.

He also said users can make searches using private browsing modes and clear cookies off devices after each use. Ms. Cranor said software add-ons to browsers, such as Abine's Targeted Advertising Cookie Opt-Out, are also options for people who hope to keep their browsers but add protection.

To stay safe on smartphones and other devices, Mr. Polonetsky and Ms. Cranor recommended users check devices to see if apps are requesting permission to access information that isn't directly related to their functions.

"A flashlight app shouldn't need anything, it's just a flashlight. But you can check your permissions to see if there's any indication the flashlight is doing more than what you see on your phone," said Ms. Cranor.

If someone is taking the disappearance effort a level above eluding advertisers, Mr. Polonetsky recommends contacting people-search services such as Intelius and requesting to opt-out of that database. If that's not good enough, individuals can fight high-tech fire with fire with facial recognition blocking goggles, red light camera-blocking devices or other devices of sometimes questionable legality.

"For the truly paranoid, now there are things like anti-surveillance glasses, privacy hoods, do-not-track license plates, all sorts of things," he said.

Given how ubiquitous electronic tracking has become and how popular electronic devices remain despite monitoring, one might question if paranoia surrounding tracking is overblown.

Carnegie Mellon University's Data Privacy Day events on Monday included a panel discussion questioning "Will the Mobile Web and Social Networking Mark the End of Privacy," but Ms. Cranor said the key issue should be defining what privacy actually means to consumers.

"I think there are degrees of privacy, it's not just black and white that we have privacy or we've given up privacy," she said. "Most people understand that you have to give up some kind of privacy but most people I talk to don't want to give up all of their privacy." For Mr. Polonetsky, transparency about what's being monitored and what it's for would go a long way toward easing consumer concerns.

"When you go to Amazon, they tell you they're tracking what you do on the site and based on what you looked at they might offer you another book. No one's like 'why are you tracking my books,'" he said. "People have minimal privacy concerns when they get what's going on, when they believe [the tracking] is trying to help you." Deborah M. Todd: or 412-263-1652.

___ (c)2013 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Visit the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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