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Big brothers and big sisters are everywhere: And they are watching you

By Daniel J. Burnick • Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Locked phoneIn 1948, George Orwell's “1984” was first published.  In 2014, 30 years post “1984”, not only is our government watching us, but so can everyone else.  The lead story in Sunday's Birmingham News was “Who's watching you?” This story discussed various facts about government surveillance in the Birmingham area:  1,500 surveillance cameras in Hoover alone, Birmingham monitoring public spaces with cameras, 80 cameras on the University of Montevallo campus, a $70,000 mobile observation platform, “Skywatch” in Fultondale, and ALDOT cameras everywhere.  There were also articles concerning Huntsville and Mobile.

Recently, I was interviewed by Marissa Mitchell, with Birmingham TV station ABC 33/40 for a story entitled “Death of Privacy. What's private and what's not?”  There is very little, if any, privacy in the digital world today. Public records are just that, public.  Numerous internet sites compile public records, and make them available, sometimes free and sometimes for a fee.  Public records include, but are not limited to, home ownership, property taxes, vehicle information, court records, including divorce, civil lawsuits, arrests and convictions and bankruptcy, telephone numbers, social media sites and photographs.  Try going to Google.com and search your own name, both with a general Google search and an image search to see what is easily available on the internet about you.

Your own social media sites, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. are fertile grounds for finding out information about you.  Names, addresses, dates of birth, family members, school and work history, favorite restaurants and stores, travel/vacation habits, friends, religious beliefs, and much, much more can be easily compiled and shared.  When you post a photograph on a social media site, it is time and location stamped.  Your smart phone is GPS enabled.  Try searching yourself on Spokeo.com or PeopleFinders.com. Although both these sites provide basic information for free, and charge for more detailed information, they will give you an idea of what information is readily available on the internet.  All it takes is 5 minutes and several clicks of the mouse.

When I give presentations on digital privacy issues, there are some general ideas that I emphasize.  First, assume nothing on the internet is private and that anyone can get access to it.  Second, in public, assume that you are being watched, either by government/private surveillance cameras or someone with a smart phone with video capability.  Third, if you are in a public place, don't do or say anything that you do not want to become public.  If you want to remain off the grid, unplug your computer, turn off your smart phone, and never leave the house.  Of course, this is virtually impossible, but a reality in today's world.

Email Daniel Burnick or visit his attorney bio.

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