Privacy and data protection are the in-thing right now, especially over this side of the pond. Here in the Amalgamated Federation of the EU and Brexitopia  the implementation of the GDPR means that our letterboxes, emails and websites are being flooded with letters, explanatory notices, and endless opt-in/opt-out options everywhere we go. In some ways it’s getting a bit ridiculous… I can imagine that in the future, Starbucks will have to gain your explicit consent to bellow out your misheard, misspelt and mispronounced name when your double espresso is ready; and in the absence of such consent, will have to anonymously courier your drink, by ninja, in a plain cardboard box, at the dead of night, to your seat!

Whilst the present slew of hype feels a bit like overkill, it’s also a bit of an eye-opener: I’ve received mailings from a number of companies whose possession and use of my personal data came as something of a surprise, as did the fact that I’d ever have any dealings with them in the first place.

It seems that the oft-quoted advice that if you want your data to remain anonymous, you should never access the internet doesn’t go far enough… Maybe instead, we should be saying ‘Lock yourself in a windowless room and have no  contact with anyone, or anything at all’.

The simple fact is, that even most careful of us are failing dismally when it comes to remaining anonymous and not disclosing the most intimate details of our everyday lives, personalities and activities from the very people whose hands we don’t want them falling into. Let’s take, as an example, a company that’s been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons: Facebook. It’s an operation that I loathe with a passion, and I place it and Zuckerberg on a level playing field with Atilla the Hun and Machiavelli, and if you think that’s a little harsh, then I’d urge you to think again..

Let’s imagine that, like me, you don’t have a Facebook account. Zuckerberg’s got nothing on you, right?

Nope. Because you have friends. And those friends have your details stored in their phone, and if just one of those friends has linked their phone to FB, then I’m afraid that whether you like it or not, you already have an invisible ‘shadow account’ lurking in the vaults of FB that’s been steadily collecting data on you without your knowledge and without your agreement. Did you consent to that? Nope. Will FB ever ask for your consent? Nope. Can you opt out? Nope. Will GDPR, or any other law protect your rights and interests? Nope. Is there anything you can do about it? Nope. Is it a totally underhand and sh!tty thing for FB to do? Yep. If I was to create a FB account tomorrow, it would magically suggest with remarkable accuracy a bunch of people to befriend and a whole load of stuff I might be interested in… Because it already knows a shedload about me, even though I’ve never knowingly disclosed it.

Then there’s the FB pixel – a sneaky dot that lurks unseen on countless web pages, quietly collecting stats to feed back to the mothership, and dropping cookies onto your system like they were going out of fashion. So, you don’t need to tell Zuckerberg what you’ve been up to, where you’ve been or what tickles your fancy – chances are, he already knows. He’ll even get us to do his dirty work for him under the pretext of socialising with our friends – you surely didn’t think that the FB ‘like’ button, ubiquitous all over the Web, but conspicuous by its absence on this blog is only there to show support for cool stuff and sharing it with your buddies, did you? If course its not – it’s an analytical mapping tool that traces your steps around the internet with the express intent to build a profile of your online and offline, lifestyle. Trust me, if the cops had a profiling tool as effective as FB, most criminals would be apprehended way before they even broke the law!

There’s plenty more, but I can feel my blood pressure mounting!

I know I’ve picked on Facebook – which I reckon is fair game, since it’s happy to steal my information without permission – but I could equally well have chosen Google or any one of the other internet behemoths… They all do it, and that’s the really scary thing: These vast, faceless organisations know more about us, and are sharing and seeking more information about us than we can possibly imagine, and how many of us, knowing the true scale of that would ever be happy giving our permission?

So much for our real lives, but what about our Second lives? Do we trust Linden Lab as custodians of our personal data? And does it really matter anyway? Surely there’s only a small risk and limited useful information that could possibly be gleaned from our virtual lives, after all?

You reckon? Perhaps we should be thinking a bit more carefully about what our inworld activities say about us as people in the real world, and how competent complex analytical algorhythms are today at using that raw data to recognise patterns and generate information from them. The Lab does indeed possess a range of sensitive personal data about us, that when linked to our avatar activity could easily provide rich pickings for the data mining experts that we know are out there.

The Lindens know our real names, emails, IP addresses, age demographic, location and – for many of us – credit card and banking details. Analysis of our transaction history can provide insight into our spending habits and financial status, and whilst logged in our viewer is capable of being interrogated to provide comprehensive information about our operating system, graphics card and peripheral devices – all juicy, and valuable assets, that could potentially be made available to third parties who might have an interest. All of this is linked to our accounts, and who knows what level of logging is being stored on the Lab’s servers? They know when we log in, and where from, how long we spend inworld and what we do when we’re there; they know with whom we associate, the groups we belong to, where we choose to shop and how much we spend there… The Lindens could easily build a fairly accurate picture of the person behind the avatar, our habits and our lifestyle, simply by analysing and combining the data that’s freely available to them.

Now, you may still think that’s not a big deal – perhaps we trust the Lindens or simply feel that the information they hold is of little real use. Even so, it could still impact upon us. What if the Lab are not as scrupulous as we’d hope, and would happily sell off our spending habits and IP addresses to the highest bidder? What if they were ever bought out by someone who had no concerns about making a profit from our data? What if the SL servers were hacked and all that lovely information linking our real and virtual lives finds its way onto the dark Web? What if an inworld photo, shared from the viewer on Facebook, by virtue of its ‘likes’ and the connections to real people that FB is so good at unearthing should result in a secret virtual identity being linked to our real selves? All this could happen!

Maybe I’m just paranoid, but as the maxim goes… It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you!

Frightening, huh?

s. x

People think I’m insane because I am frowning all the time
All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy
Think I’ll lose my mind if I don’t find something to pacify
Black Sabbath – Paranoid

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