Journalist of the Year Portfolio

The price of your privacy


It’s no wonder why Google and its products are free.

With the top search engine in the world, Google Docs, Gmail, Google Drive and many others, the company offers a gold mine of useful features to compliment the search bar — all are infinitely scalable. And they’re all free.

But there is one hidden cost that comes with all the applications. But it’s not a type of cost that will break the bank or max out your credit card.

The price is your privacy.

But Google isn’t the only company that does this.

Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat — all free — all record everything you type or send on their sites or apps.

And most of the time, it’s not all that well advertised that they are doing it.

Having spent 30 years in the cybersecurity industry as a tech privacy advocate, Bill Lowry, Vice President of Products at Server Central and father of Creed Lowry ’14, believes that there’s no real privacy on the Internet.

And he says the majority of users don’t know that.

“The thing you don’t understand when you’re signing up to these services is that they all come with terms,” Lowry said. “Every time you click ‘accept’ on any website that you use, there are literal terms and conditions that are written out somewhere that back that up… So in exchange for this free, scalable, infinite service, you give away the privacy and the rights to protect and keep this information secret.”

According to Lowry, the terms and conditions of Internet companies like Google allow for a user’s information to be taken, stored and transferred.

And by using their services, you give away your rights to protect and keep the information secret.

“Most people just want the convenience of using the free service from Google,” Lowry said. “But now what happens is the terms and conditions you accept when you start to use the free Google products include language that states that they can take your information and use it any way they want to.”

But where does this information go, and how is it used?

To make money, companies like Google often sell highly personalized advertisements — using personal information, interests, disinterests and friends to uniquely target products to you.

“In the 60s, there were advertisements that were broadcast on television that were meant to be ubiquitously enjoyed,” Lowry said. “Nowadays, advertisement is very, very targeted. A lot of times you’ll notice that you visit a website or like something on Facebook… and within minutes, you start to browse other websites and find that you get pop-up ads or banner-ads that have the same criteria there. So secretly, without knowing it, your information is being stored, replicated and then given to other parties so that they can create targeted advertising experiences.”

Lowry also says other social media companies, such as Facebook, sell personal information readily available on their platforms to advertisers to focus these advertisements.

Although this information is often anonymized, Lowry says what remains is the user’s age and interactions to people and posts on the web.

And according to Jay Johnson, a cybersecurity lawyer at Jones Day and former federal prosecutor, many online companies are, at their base, simply data collection companies.

“A lot of online companies and a lot of media companies are at their core data companies now,” Johnson said. “That’s how they monetize the service that they’re providing.”

Johnson also says that consumers have to make a choice between privacy and convenience, and too often, convenience wins out.

“When you bring it all the way back to a consumer level, quite frankly consumers have a decision to make at the outset,” Johnson said. “Routinely you can ask an audience how many of you have a grocery store rewards card, and I’ve never asked the question and received less than about an 80 to 75 percent response rate, meaning three out of every four people in the room have traded to some degree their identification for ten cents a gallon of milk.”

Johnson also says that one’s personal health information is perhaps the most sought-after information, as it is unchangeable and universally valuable to companies.

“The latest and perhaps most valuable data is what’s called personal health information, and there’s a reason for that,” Johnson said. “If you misappropriate my credit card I can replace it tomorrow, no harm no foul. I can’t change my personal health history. If I had cancer treatment, I can’t change that.”

Here at the school, Congress’s recently passed bill allowing major tech giants to sell users’ private information has drawn criticism.

“I would have to say I’m probably against it,” computer science instructor Kurt Tholking said. “I’m not in favor of companies being able to sell information, but it’s a give and take. If you’re going to use a service or product, you’re kind of consenting to use it.”

Although Tholking opposes the new bill, he does believe that the gathering of information is ethical – to a point.

“I think it is on the ethical side since they are disclosing that they are going to sell it, whereas some companies have hid it in the past or buried it deep in the user agreement or something,” Tholking said. “There are two types of information: information that you willingly provide a company such as demographic and sales information, but it becomes a problem when it’s information such as usernames and passwords where you’re shopping and there’s a data breach and information gets out.”

In the realm of online shopping, Tholking believes that companies have the right to collect sales information.

However, he sees a problem in collecting other information through cookies or other tracking tools.

“If you buy certain products, they may sell that information to other companies,” Tholking said. “That’s just business marketing. I don’t see a problem with that. Where I see a problem is where you’re shopping online and they collect information using the Internet to create a bigger database on you, using that information to target specific information.”

While everything on the Internet is being monitored somehow somewhere, information about yourself can be discovered even through portals merely associated with accessing the Internet.

If Director of the FBI James Comey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg put tape over their webcams and microphone ports and cite it as an “obvious security measure,” maybe you should too.

“People shouldn’t really be surprised in this day and age that this kind of information is being collected,” Tholking said. “...You just have to be aware of what information you’re putting out online.”

Although Tholking cautions against the dangers of the Internet, he believes it can be utilized to users’ advantage — if they choose to exercise a little caution while online.

“Most people put out more information than they know on social media,” Tholking said. “If they don’t want it getting out, don’t go online, don’t buy online. In this day and age, there’s a trade off...It saves some companies money targeting marketing to specific people instead of just mass marketing. In the long run, we may all benefit.”