How Private is Your Phone Number?

How serious are you about the privacy of your phone number? If you’ve watched shows like “The Fall” and “House of Cards” or enjoyed movies dealing with espionage and spying, you’ll already be familiar with something called a “burner phone”. These are cellphones that you use once to deliver or receive a message before you destroy it to avoid being traced. The term, of course, comes from the old method of receiving secret information by way of pen and paper and burning that paper once you memorize the message. But with the rate of growth in cellphone technology, employing burner phones to protect your privacy might be a bit out of your price range. Enter the Burner App.

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The Burner App is new app whose website is running the “Burner Challenge“. By entering your phone number, it will let you know how much information can be obtained from public sources. The app itself functions by generating disposable phone numbers for talking and SMS texting, which is a great way to keep your primary phone number safe from possibly unwanted attention. This Forbes article by Larry Magid lists examples like Craigslist transactions and online dating. By dialing through the app, the recipient’s caller ID will display the generated number instead of your own; you can even have out-of-town area codes to further throw the recipient off your trail. So how much does the Burner App cost? It’s free to download, and you get 15 minutes of talk and 15 texts before the Freemium model kicks on. Additionally minutes and texts can run between $2 and $12.

While I can get behind the lovely nature of this app, I still have some concerns. Just because you have a limitless list of potential numbers with which to use, it doesn’t mean that your activities can be considered private. Does Burner keep a list of app-generated numbers associated with your primary number? Does it ask for locational data? What about the people you’re calling? Do their numbers get recorded somehow? These questions might not matter for the average citizen if their primary concern is obfuscating their personal phone number from intended recipients, but how will this exchange of information be handled according to the law if people are caught using it for illegal activities? I’ll be keeping my eye on Burner. I’m very interested to see what other technologies develop out of their work.

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Social Logins: Facebook’s New Privacy Features

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My aversion to social logins shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who follows my blog or has spoken to me at length about social media, but I’m always happy when any social site takes a step in the right direction when it comes to preserving the privacy of its users. Last year Facebook introduced a new Login system that would give people the option to opt out of providing private information when using their mobile app, a courtesy that was to be implemented on apps that can connect directly with your Facebook account. It looks like they’re testing those options now, which means many Facebook users will notice error messages when using the mobile app. As they work the bugs out, I hope the end result will leave the social media landscape a safer and a more private one. These changes are expected to start going into effect on April 30th 2015.

So what’s different now? In the past, the app would give you a list of information it requires for you to use it. That’s it. No options to opt out, no settings with which to fool around with; your information was essential to the app’s function. Now apps will (or should) ask you what information you’d like to provide and ask whether you would like to share information that the onwers of the app would like to have. I, for one, want to know exactly what my options will be for my favorite apps. I will give an update the next time I touch upon this subject.

Are Your Apps Compromising Your Privacy?

The world has gone mobile, and that means millions of apps are being installed every day on smart phones, tablets, and other devices that rely on Internet access. What most people don’t know is that when they download an app, they are subject to user agreements that allow the owners of the apps to collect personal and private data that will be shared with advertisers. You might think that apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media platforms would be the worst offenders, but according to Forbes staff Parmy Olson, the worst offenders are actually games like Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds. Locational data is one of the things these apps collect. The game developer doesn’t care where you play, but the advertisers who pay the game developers to include their ads in the app most definitely do.

App Grades

PrivacyGrade.org Database Scores on User Expectations VS Actual App Behavior.

You might’ve noticed that apps nowadays will inform you about what type of data they collect before you finish installing it. As an advocate for transparency in all facets of life, simply stating that your data is being collected is not enough; the developers of these apps and games should let you know exactly where your data ends up, who’s buying it, and for what purpose. On the other hand, it’s a little understandable that free apps require advertisers in order to stay in business. But it’s also important not to confuse this data collection with up-front advertising on certain free apps that allow you to pay a small fee to remove ad banners. This fee only pays for your right not to be advertised at directly, It does NOT mean they stop collecting your data! It only means that you’ll be advertised to later through a different medium.

So how far does this go? How much data is being collected? A driving apple called Google Waze collections your locational data, but it also shares this data with local governments! Doesn’t that strike you as “Big Brother” behavior? It’s not a matter of whether you have something to hide, but rather a reasonable expectation of privacy within your own property – including your car and where you’re going every day! It can go further than that. Last month Twitter unveiled Fabric, a platform for building mobile apps. Included in the tools is something called Digits, which is used to send SMS Registrations to people signing up for mobile app services. Normally this would an expensive undertaking for the owner of the app, but with Digits, Twitter would be paying for the text delivery. However, Twitter also gets to keep the phone numbers for advertising purposes. This behavior isn’t explicitly explained to anyone downloading or registering for the app!

So the question remains: Are your apps compromising your privacy? YES, absolutely they are! The more important question is this: do you care enough to make changes to your mobile behavior?

What’s Your Digital Footprint?

I’m no Mark Cuban fan, and he’s clearly trying to sell his app in this video, but he does give solid advice about being in control of your digital footprint, which, in basic terms, your online “permanent record”. I’ve mentioned in a previous post how your old profiles, accounts, and journals persist long after you’ve forgotten about them, and that’s exactly the type of digital footprint that can lead to your personal information being leaked or stolen. We tend to think we’re relatively safe online. For the most part we are, but only due to the fact that there are millions of netizens online, making your information arbitrary or unappealing by way of obscurity. That’s no reason to be careless.

While our governments and systems aren’t as dystopian as Cuban suggests (at least not yet), you can seize control of your digital footprint. Potential employers and other interested parties will be looking for your online, especially on social media. Armed with this knowledge, you can shape the way people view you by being mindful of what you post, when you post, and where you post on social media sites. Remember the old mantra about making a first impression? Your digital footprint is your first impression for everyone who cares enough to look for you; it is up to you to put your best foot forward. While you’re not around, your online profiles are your stand-ins. Here are a few things to be mindful of:

1. Usernames: Pick something appropriate. If you want your online social life and work life to be separate, use different usernames.
2. Language: Use proper communication, be respectful, and don’t assume no one’s looking. Someone is always looking.

3. Privacy Settings: Yes, it’s a hassle, and yes, it takes time, but a little but of time invested goes a long way. Are there pictures you don’t want strangers looking at? Check your privacy settings!

Privacy Policy – Read at Least One of These

A site’s privacy policy is one of the most important documents you should read, especially when you need to sign up for an account. Every website should have one, and it should detail exactly what kind of data it’s collecting from you, how they’re going to use that information, and who is entitled to that information if and when they get sold, bought, or merged. The privacy policy is a sister-document to the User Agreement or Terms and Conditions, which usually states that by using the site, you are also agreeing to some level of data collection by way of tracking cookies and IP Address logs.

True, these two documents aren’t the most thrilling pieces of writing in the world, but it’s very important that you familiarize yourself with the type of language they use. Also you’re agreeing to something! Why would you ever agree to something if you don’t understands the terms and conditions? We’re all in the habit of clicking “Yes, I agree to the Terms and Conditions” box just to get to the next screen. Most of the time no harm will come of it, but do understand that the legalese most often protects the site owner first and the users second.

Most importantly though, the privacy policies of a website will state that the information they collect about you will be shared with their partners, including advertisers, in order to better target you as a potential buyer of a product or service. A great number of sites are connected to Google, which means that your searches and its contents are being monitored, collected, and shared with any company partnered with Google so that ads relevant to your interests are more likely to pop up in banners, side panels, and “promoted” sections of other sites you visit.

Don’t willfully put yourself in the dark about this type of practice. Read over a privacy policy and user agreement at least once just to see how your personal information is being used. If you don’t care, carry on. If you do, then learn ways to protect yourself by doing research, or by reading more posts from my blog. No pressure! Just letting you know it’s there!

The Facebook Giveaway Scam

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You must’ve seen it before: Pages on Facebook claiming to give away FREE iPads, iPhones, and other Apple accessories. That’s right, FREE! Did I mention it was FREE? All you need to do is Like and Share the Page with all your friends and you’ll be automatically entered into this FREE giveaway! Simple, right? So what are you waiting for?

STOP!!!

Before you agree to any terms and conditions set out by this “altruistic” Facebook Page, just note one thing: IT’S ALWAYS A SCAM! Unless you see news from an official Apple source and not just some Page that was created a month ago (that’s right, check the creation date of the Page!), your default reaction should always be “It’s a scam!” Every. Single. Time.

So what do they get out of someone just sharing a Page? Information about you, and everyone you get to share. How? Take a look at this section here:

Share What do you suppose happens when you click on the number of shares so far? It shows you a list of everyone who shared the Page, image, or post, which in turn gives you access to any public information on those people’s accounts, including geographic location, email addresses, websites, and even phone numbers. In the world of scam artists, this type of information is absolutely crucial, especially when the old method of acquiring that sort of information requires the purchase of mailing lists, which can be unreliable and expensive. By participating in these Facebook scams, you’re literally helping the scam artist! So what comes next after your Like and Share? Most likely they will have a link for you to click on that requires you to fill out a simple survey to enter completely. Like so:

Giveaway

Notice that the top three “offers” you have to complete involves installing something on your computer. Any time anyone tells you to install something so that you get something else for free, they’re either scammed or trying to scam you. The rest are surveys you need to fill out, which requires you to enter your email address, name, phone number, physical address, and date of birth. Getting this type of info from you is every scam artist’s wet dream! Not only that, let’s take a look at the privacy policy of these so called “survey” and “contest” sites:

privacy noticeShown above are the last 3 segments of a long privacy policy that basically says that you’re agreeing to let them sell or transfer your personal information to anyone, including third parties, if their company ever gets bought, merges with another company, creates an alliances with another company, etc. Oh, and also they can change their Privacy Policy at anytime without notice to you, because the onus is on YOU to come back and check the page. Any legitimate company or website worth their salt will send you a notice via email.

These types of scams are incredibly effective because they take advantage of the hype built up by official companies like Apple, who spent millions of dollars to generate hype and demand. Scam artists take advantage of this by using powerful and enticing terms like “FREE” (notice the all caps for emphasis), and “Giveaway”. Everyone wants free stuff; it’s a very basic marketing tactic that’s been around as long as commerce. Don’t participate in it. The battle to end the trade and sale of your personal information begins with you! Be mindful of marketing language, and more importantly, always be aware that scams are still a rampant problem. Every new social platform gives these crooks and criminals a new way to implement their old tricks. Remember: in the world of social media, protecting yourself also means protecting your friends and family.

Ello’s Invite-Only Platform, Paid Features

I am currently a member of Ello, the latest social network that is primed to take on Facebook and win the hearts and minds of users with its seemingly altruistic philosophy. No advertising, options to opt out of standard data collection on users, and more importantly, a free-to-use network that will never set a mandatory price. It appears the only way to become a member of Ello is to submit your email and wait for an invite from the Ello admins, or to have a friend who is already a member send you an invite. Every new account can invite up to 5 people. While I get that it could help weed out potential fake accounts, I also see it as a weakness, and a cumulative one at that. One spam account can invite up to 5 spam accounts, each with the ability to invite up to 5 spam accounts. Hopefully Ello will spend a little time explaining how they would combat an exploit like that. Let’s move on to my experience so far!

First Impressions

Ello’s in its beta phase, so I will refrain from being too harsh. My first impression is one of slight confusion. There’s minimal wordage from the moment you log in. There are two main sections: “Friends” and “Noise”. In the friends section you will find your friends listed in nice, cute bubbles with the news feed to the right of them, which only shows posts from people you’re following. Everything else goes into Noise. Nice.

My second impression of Ello is that everything is very simple. A little too simple. The site features a lot of white space and no visible borders, leaving the user in a sort of nebulous floating space. On top of being none too crazy about the font choice, the reply features are faded out until you roll your mouse over them, so text seems to get lost in the vast emptiness of Ello. There is no like system that made Facebook famous, but you do get the number of views and the ability to comment. No longer will people be able to quantify exactly how much people like a post. I actually admire the omission of the “Like” function. It makes Ello a place for people, not businesses, and it’s the presence of businesses that turn social networks into advertising platforms.

Verdict: In its current state, I would describe Ello as a more social version of Tumblr with a sprinkle of Twitter.

Paid Features

The paid features aspect of Ello has given me pause. I’m curious to know exactly what features they plan to include, especially if they’re touting the whole “free-to-use” philosophy. Right off the bat I will guess that for several dollars (perhaps $4.99), you will be allowed to have additional invites so you can migrate more of your friends over from Facebook. I’ll even go as far as guessing that current beta users will be given extra invites as a thank you from the Ello admins. The upcoming features section has “Private Accounts” listed. I hope this will be a free feature and not something you have to pay for. I’m actually quite excited to see where Ello will go and how it will evolve as it gains more users. Make more videos! Keep us in the loop!