Sunday, February 3, 2008

SSC #52 Think you deleted it? Think again!

So you received a hot stock tip that you really weren't supposed to get.  Or perhaps it was a quick note from a forbidden sweetheart.  Or maybe you've just been going to places on the internet that you really shouldn't.  You may think you covered your tracks.  You might believe that you have deleted all the evidence.  You might be sitting there feeling safe and secure in the knowledge that no one will ever be able to retrieve those files from your computer because you know you deleted them. 

And you are so totally wrong.

When people complain about Microsoft Windows, most complaints are about how buggy it is.  How often it locks up.  How easy it is for it to be compromised by malicious entities.  When most people complain about Microsoft Windows, they don't complain about how it is slowly collecting and storing hidden traces of your deleted emails, surfing history, and supposedly deleted files.  Thats because "Most People" don't know about it.

What's more, if you have a computer that was owned and used by someone else before you, theres no telling what could be on it.  You could have a life sentence worth of child porn hidden on your harddrive and you would never even know.  Thats a very drastic example, but it is entirely within the realm of possibility.

If you buy a used computer, it is important to have the harddrive completely wiped.  It doesn't have to be professionally done, you CAN do it yourself.  But it does need to be thorough.  Once that is done, you can install an operating system of your choosing.

It isn't a new thing with Microsoft that they do this, practically every version of Windows has had some sort of privacy compromising feature or another.  With Windows 98 it was the Find Fast file indexing feature.  With Windows XP it is the hidden MFT area and the supposed NSA backdoor key that lets Uncle Sam look into your computer any time they please.  Windows Vista isn't looking to be any different from this trend.

There's even a security encryption algorith that was created by NIST (U.S. Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology) in conjunction with the  NSA, which apparently seems to have a set of magical numbers that bypasses  it as though it wasn't there at all.  Basically a backdoor.

As of right now, privacy advocates and experts can't figure out what those numbers are, but they all seem to agree that they exist.

So perhaps the idea that the goverment can see your files doesn't bother you.  Perhaps you are that trusting, that patriotic.  What about a couple years down the road when those magic numbers leak out into the wild wild net?  What about those magic numbers letting just any snot-nosed teenage geek with authority issues rifle through your files with impunity?

Strangers rifling through your family photos? 

Placing a high value on privacy does not immediately insinuate that you have something to hide.  It only shows that you have respect for yourself and for others.

Right now the warrantless wiretapping scandal between the Executive branch and the Telecoms is slowly being forgotten while we're wrapped up in the latest horrific thing to hit the news.  Whether that horrific thing that distracts you is Bush's new signing statements, the Tax Stimulus check you may be getting later on in the year, or how big Britney Spears' thighs have gotten.

Protecting your privacy can be hard.  It can be complex.  It does take some effort.  You cannot just throw some money at it and make it go away when some of the very same high rated security programs you can buy use encryption that has a built in back door.  You have to be vigilant and you have to keep track of what is happening in the world at large.

Failing that, you could get an operating system that is completely open to scrutiny from privacy groups.  I know it seems counterintuitive, but it is really true.  The more people you have looking at the programming code, the more sure you can be that if there was something bad, a whistleblower would have found it.  Thats why I am a big advocate of Ubuntu Linux.  It is completely open source.  People are watching what goes into my operating system.  And if I really wanted to, I could watch too.

Or you can always just use your computer as though you are living in a goldfish bowl and that everything you do could possibly be watched by someone else.  Either now, or at some time in the future.

We as citizens of this age are bombarded with so much that it is really hard to prioritize what we are most angry about.  But there always seems to be something else to make us forget.  It works by either lulling us to sleep, mesmerizing us with flashing lights and sounds, or making us so angry that we forget what we were originally angry before we get a chance to do anything about it.

Maybe we should start making a list?

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