Living in the Online Cloud: The Dark Side

I rely heavily on technology for nearly all aspects of my life. Last year the power went out, and I was excited because I could still watch a movie since my netbook has great battery life (around 8 hours). I made my hot tea on the grill and was ready to curl up in front of the fire with a Netflix movie–only to realize that my wifi and router both need power. DOH!

While my last post focused on my favorite apps that have made my life easier, this post will share some of the potential pitfalls to living in the cloud.

Last week I spammed the world. Seriously. You may be one of the thousands of people who received an invite to Plaxo from me. If so I apologize. Allowing 3rd parties to harvest your personal information if one of the dangers of living in the cloud. Here’s the back story.

After years of dealing with inadequate synching between Outlook and my Blackberry, I was excited to get a Droid X which syncs wirelessly with Gmail. The problem was that I needed to merge my Outlook and Gmail contacts but didn’t want duplicates. Plaxo offered a way to synch contacts between multiple email and social networking accounts, so I signed up.

In the process of signing up however, I missed unchecking the box that said, “Invite your contacts to connect on Plaxo.” Thus Plaxo sent invites to everyone in my list of Google contacts which includes: President Obama, all of my county commissioners, the entire staff of my library, list servs, professors, friends, relatives, and even the nanny that I fired two years ago.

You might ask why all of these people are in my contacts list. I’d like to ask Google the same thing. Apparently a long time ago, Google thought it would be a good idea to add anyone you email to your contacts list. I’m fine with that but they also added anyone who emailed you or was on a CC line with you in any email. So all you people who send out funny jokes or virus warnings to friends and family members–all of your friends and family became part of my contact list.

In 2008 Google changed the way contacts are added and those random contacts became suggested contacts rather than automatically added contacts–but not before adding thousands to my contact list.

So while this was totally a case of user error, it’s something that can (and does) happen to anyone.

Gmail

Have you ever noticed when using Gmail that the ads within Gmail often relate to your email conversation? That’s no accident! Google is performing a keyword search through your emails in order to display relevant ads. While they claim not to store any of this personal information, we all know that storage happens. Earlier this year Google suspended the practice of collecting Wi-Fi information after it admitted to inadvertently collecting user data over unsecured Wi-Fi networks while photographing for Street View.

While I’m not ready to give up my Gmail account yet, I do have concerns about my privacy. I haven’t switched to another email provider because I’m not convinced that the same, or worse, privacy violations might happen. It’s not that I have any top secret email information but it’s more of the principle. I rely on Google Apps to host the email for my website and use Google Docs to hold everything from term papers to financial records. It’s a bit scary having all that info out there and scoured for information by a corporation. Yet for me, for now, the benefit to having that data available from anywhere outweighs the risks of having the data potentially harvested.

Apps

Apps, short for applications, allow you to do cool things on your phone like throw birds at pigs as well as navigate using maps and GPS. However there is some risk in downloading and installing apps.

When you install most apps you will be asked to allow that app to have access to certain information such as your address book, location via wi-fi, and state of the phone (whether you are on a call or not)

This is a screen you definitely do not want to breeze by. Look carefully at what information the app wants access to and try to determine why it might need that info. Many apps ask your your location to place targeted ads in the app. So I might see ads for a local store rather than a store in another part of the country.

One of the apps I really wanted was a wallpaper app that allows you to download cool pictures to use as a wallpaper, but that app wanted access to my SD card, contacts, and location. There is no reason for this much information to be accessed by a 3rd party for pretty pictures! See the Android PSA on Droid Ninja. Note that the same warnings apply to other smart phones as well.

Facebook

I don’t even know where to start with warnings about Facebook–maybe the obvious place–have you read the terms of using Facebook? Do you know what happens to the rights of content that you upload to Facebook? I’m not posting anything that I would want copyrighted so not a big deal to me, but if you are using a tool to import entire blog posts to Facebook as a note, I would check in to this. Then there are the privacy issues of what data friends can see and friends of friends can see. My rule of thumb–don’t post, text, email or otherwise digitally create anything you wouldn’t want published on the front page of the New York Times or your hometown newspaper. Even if you have privacy settings set to most secure there is always the chance that someone will do a screen capture and print or create an image of what you posted. Trust me! It’s happened to me.

Facebook Apps or other Browser Add Ons

Every week or so a new warning comes out about potential security holes in Facebook apps or add ons to browsers. The lastest is I hijacked a Facebook account with Firesheep. For more on Facebook and privacy, take a look at some of the posts by Bobbi Newman where she gives step-by-step instructions for updating your settings.

These are just a few of the situations I can think of where I have learned a lesson or two about protecting my privacy as well as others’ privacy. Did I miss anything you’d like to share?

About Lori Reed

Lori Reed, coauthor of Workplace Learning & Leadership: A Handbook for Library and Non-Profit Trainers, is a learning and communication strategist with more than twenty years experience in learning and development. A 2009 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and a 2010 "One to Watch" for paralibrarians, Lori graduated cum laude from East Carolina University with a Bachelor of Science in Communication. Lori is a certified Synchronous Learning Expert and a North Carolina Master Trainer and has traveled across North America speaking about libraries and training.

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