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GPS and RFID Make Privacy Almost Impossible

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GPS and RFID Make Privacy Almost Impossible

An RFID "patch" has thousands of uses, from tracking library books to maintaining banking information.

Getty/Steven Puetzer

Technology has given us a very convenient world, but this comes with a price. If our information is easier for us to access, like our bank accounts being available through an RFID chip, then it is also easier for an identity thief to get access to it. Reading articles about the availability of technology, and how we can use it to make our lives more convenient looks more and more like science fiction, at least to a generation that can still remember putting a man on the Moon. (Yes, we’re really did put a man on the moon…several of them in fact, back in the late 1960s.) The attention getters the past few months have been GPS and RFID.

For example Idaho new station KBOI recently ran a story about RFID and your credit cards. This has become a growing trend in making our money available to businesses. You no longer have to swipe your card through a machine to pay for something, if you have an RFID chip in your card, all you have to do is wave it in front of the Point of Sale machine (POS). The machine can read your number through the air, and deduct the purchased directly from your bank account. Nifty, right?

But the KBOI story goes on to talk about electronic pickpocket devices that work on the same principle. These days, an identity thief can simply sit near the door of the local coffee shop, and sniff out the card numbers of anyone who walks through the door. These devices currently hold about 500 card numbers, so the identity thief can fill the machine up in the course of a single day. And of course, to keep from arousing suspicion, the identity thief will probably only spend about an hour in any given location, reading a newspaper, drinking a cup of Starbucks, and looking just like anyone else. If the identity thief wants to speed up the collection of information, taking a stroll downtown would probably do it in any major city. Just think for a moment how long it would take you to walk past 500 people.

Digital pickpockets are not our only concern these days, however. There is a lot of information circulating on the Internet, especially Facebook, these days about how location information can be taken from the digital photos that you take with your camera phone. Smart phones will tag photos with GPS identifying information that can identify where the picture was taken. This has been taken advantage of by police departments and law enforcement agencies to locate criminals in the past, but anyone with the right software can pull the trick off. If you post photos to your Facebook profile regularly, it would not even be too hard for an identity thief to determine where you like to hang out, and target you specifically.

GPS information continues to be a hotly debated topic as well. This month a little known an app called Girls Around Me became all the rage for a few days. This one was designed to help people find dates in their area, by sharing information through foursquare, which is really just another social networking tool. Basically, this took profile information from foursquare that users had willingly shared, combined it with GPS information which users had also willingly shared, and made it available to anybody with the application. The idea is certainly not new, however there was a public outcry over this program, and Girls Around Me was pulled from smart phone markets within a few days.

The shorthand version here is that technology has become very adept at coordinating information across multiple sources. The Girls Around Me application pulled together GPS information and matched it with Facebook profile information. The end result was a stalker's dream come true.

The dangers of sharing personal information online are perfectly illustrated here. This smart phone application was called “creepy” in almost every article you will find with a Google search, but how the application is used is clearly spelled out in the user agreement, which apparently nobody reads any more. While every media source labeled this program a stalker's tool, everybody on it had chosen to be there.

The lesson is very plain; the more information you share online, the more people know about you; and it is quite apparent that we don't know what we're sharing, even when we think we do.

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