How It Affects You
Unsavory authoritarian regimes do not by any means have a monopoly on logging online activity. In 2005, Mark Klein, a former AT&T employee revealed the functions of the now infamous Room 641 A in AT&T's San Francisco switching center. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he was ordered to install data ''splitters'' (Essentially, chips that duplicate fiber-optic cable signals off the wires they are connected too) on AT&T's fiber-optic network that connected directly to the National Security Agency. While the government claimed the splitters were only eavesdropping on suspected terrorists, Klein testified that the system consisted of simple, dumb splitters incapable of any kind of contextual filtering: essentially, room 641A received “a duplicate of every fiber-optic signal routed through [AT&T’s] facilities." It is important to note that what actually went on inside secure room 641A, what was actually being done with the data that it was fed, has yet to be discovered. However, the room contained several racks of equipment fine tuned for data mining, including a Narus STA 6400, a device designed specifically for analysing Internet communications “at very high speeds." The equipment installed here certainly had the capability to store a duplicate of every bit of information that passed through it.
Governments are not alone in seeking to glean data. Companies and scammers alike will try to sneak spyware into your PC to get an idea of your browsing habits. For companies, this is only to get an idea of your interests to better target advertising on you. If you use Gmail, you will notice that the ads that appear on the rights are strangely relevant to recent searches you have made or, more ominously, emails you have received. In 2005, Google's user profiles, which give it such relevent ad targeting ability, were subject to an attempt by the federal government to access them, ostensibly for the purposes of enforcing the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). To date, Goggle has resisted all court orders and injunctions to hand over the data. Corporate means of data collection are an ethical gray area. While legally, they can claim to be behaving ethically because all users have agreed to the ''terms of service'', legal coverage does not make it right.
Internet scammers get in on the act by using phishing techniques to get personal information. Consumers are often presented with contact sheets. Unless a consumer enters their credit card data, generally the worst you can expect is a load of spam. At worst, your financial data could finance a crook's shopping spree.
Maintaining privacy is largely a matter of keeping strong passwords on as many programs as possible, avoiding public Internet connections, performing regular security scans and making a habit of deleting browsing history. This is very important for companies. Because all companies store data from past customers, the loss of such data discredits them with consumers. Strong firewalls are a must, both for consumers wishing to keep their personal data secure, and for companies wishing to preserve the integrity of their databases.