Beware: Your Data May Not be YOUR Data

With everything that has been going on between Apple and the FBI, the subject of privacy has been coming up again and again. It is a very slippery slope that both Tim Cook and Director James Comey find themselves with the case of Syed Farook’s protected iPhone. If Apple agrees to this backdoor access, precedent could be established allowing law enforcement to check any and all phones as part of an investigation, violating your privacy in secret. However, if the FBI allows Apple to hack Farook’s phone, and only his phone, then Apple (and subsequently, any smartphone manufacturer or iOS developer) holds authority over law enforcement agencies as to what phone they deem should and should not be hacked.

A slippery slope, indeed.

In the middle of this debate over what is the right thing to do are the consumers. We are reminded of the inconvenient truth that what we are led to believe is ours when in fact we are merely “borrowing” space on a server or possession of a device. This means, in turn, that what we share or purchase through our smartphones may not be as cut-and-dry as we think. This is something we encountered back in 2013 when Amazon remotely removed from Kindles copies of books that they discovered the publisher selling them did not hold the rights. Even though the books had been purchased, Amazon was able to go into the digital libraries of the consumer and repossess these illegal books. While it was well within the legal law to do this, the fact remained that Amazon sold these books to consumers. They were bought and paid for, but Amazon reserved the right to remove these titles from Kindles.

The irony was not lost that some of these titles included George Orwell’s 1984.


Then there is Snapchat, a chat platform popular with tweens and teens that allows users to send a message or an image, and then removes it from its feed in 10 seconds, or whatever time you designate.

Now here’s the problem. Just because the image disappears does not mean it is gone completely.

Many Snapchat users, under the idea that what they were sharing on the network would be private or at the very least temporary, were posting fairly inappropriate and sometimes completely explicit selfies, believing these would be deleted. After an investigation in 2014, the Snapchat developers settled with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations of collecting and mishandling user data. Turns out that those posts were never “deleted” but simply removed from a public feed. All those inappropriate images were actually stored on Snapchat servers.


Under the Commission’s ruling, Snapchat now follows a set of measures that include regular monitoring of the company’s operations for the next 20 years. Part of that monitoring involves making sure those deleted posts are truly deleted. This settlement will put to rest complaints by the FTC alleging that the company misled consumers when it claimed to offer self-deleting photos that could not be stored long term. Additionally, this investigation uncovered that by enabling 3rd party applications to store Snapchat photos, they were also enabling geolocation (the location where the photo was taken) to be shared. This meant if anyone was posting inappropriate images from home, their location was made available to Snapchat and anyone with access to their servers.

“If a company markets privacy and security as a key point in pitching its services to customers, it is critical it keeps those,” according to FTC chairwoman Edith Ramerz. Snapchat meanwhile has admitted to making mistakes in handling data, in dealing with end users and it says it is going to get better in the future.

Before you share anything online, remember that your smartphone is a device built for communication. If you want something truly private, your best bet is to not use your portable media as a ways and means to capture the moment. This hearkens back to my recent Big Idea where I talk about the Internet of Things. With so much connected to each other, we take advantage of  convenience, but we present opportunity for data breaches. I’m not saying we should all go off the grid and live like frontiersmen. What I am saying is we should think before we take the short and easy path. Yes, Snapchat is a terrific service for those who do not want a “paper trail” for their social media feed, but when taking that photo that broadcasts—albeit briefly—your moment out in the Real World, did you ask yourself “Wait a minute—to do what I am doing now requires a server, and I know this isn’t using my computer at home. So who is running this server?”

Your data has to reside somewhere. The question is, do you want to share that data with the rest of the world?


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