The Real Reason We’re Losing our Privacy

“You don’t understand,” said the soldier who sat next me, who was speaking into his phone. His hand was shaking. “They’re dangerous. Really dangerous. You need to find somewhere safe! Go to your mother, and call me as soon as you get there.”

He hung up, and held the phone with both hands on his lap. I could see the beads of sweat forming on his forehead.

“Is everything OK? Is there something I can help with?” I asked politely.

He shot a frightened look toward me. “Did you hear what’s happening on LinkedIn?” he asked.

“A bit,” I said. “What, exactly? What did they do now?”

“It’s not what they did, it’s what was done to them,” he muttered, and buried his head between his hands. “Didn’t you hear that LinkedIn was hacked? One hundred and seventeen million encrypted user passwords are now being sold to anyone who can pay all of two thousand dollars for them, and I’ve heard that hackers who’ve scanned these encrypted passwords were able to decipher ninety percent of them. That means that over one hundred million user accounts are now hacked. What’s more, I’ve just returned from Afghanistan. Do you know what this means?”

“No,” I said. “What?”

“I fought the Taliban there, and now, they know who I am,” he muttered. “I had always worn a nametag on my uniform, and any Afghan wanting to take revenge on me will have already found my password. He’ll know where I live, based on the personal details in my account. They know who my wife is. They know how to get to our house!”

“Oh.” I said. “This is the world without privacy that we’re all afraid of. But it’s OK. They won’t find your wife.”

He looked up with a miserable glance. “Why not?”

“Because LinkedIn was already hacked once, four years ago, in 2012.” I explained. “They just didn’t understand how serious the problem was back then. They thought that only six and a half million passwords were stolen. Now, it turns out for all of that time, Russian hackers had all of those passwords, and although they really may have used them during that time – they might have already sold them to the Chinese, to ISIS, or to other centers of power – you can still set your mind at ease, provided that you changed your password.”

“Actually, I did,” he said. “In 2013, I think.”

“So you see? Everything’s OK,” I reassured him. “Or, in more exact terms, sufficiently OK, since this whole episode should teach us all an important lesson. Real privacy doesn’t exist any more. One of the more secured companies in the world was hacked, and this event wasn’t exposed for four years. Now, think about it, and tell me, yourself – what are the chances that some of the world’s databases hadn’t been hacked yet by the intelligence services of countries like Russia, China, or even the United States, working under the radar?”

He thought for a moment. “None?” he suggested.

“That’s what I think, too.” I said. “Hey, Snowden managed to steal enormous amounts of information from the National Security Agency of the United States, and no one was even aware that the information disappeared until he let the cat out of the bag himself. He was just one more citizen concerned about what this agency was doing. What are the chances that the Chinese haven’t managed to bribe other people at the agency to send them the information? Or that the United States hadn’t located its own agents in Russian or Chinese communities, or anywhere else in the world? Chances are that all of this information about us – not just passwords, but identifying particulars, residential addresses, and so on – are already in the hands of large governments around the world. And yes, ISIS may also have gotten its hands on it, though that’s a bit less likely, since they aren’t as technologically advanced. But one day, a Russian or Chinese Snowden will funnel all of this information to Wikileaks, and we’ll all know about everyone else.”

“But only within the period that information was gathered in,” he said.

“Right,” I answered. “That’s why I’m claiming that we’ve all lost our historical privacy. In other words, even if one day we enact new legislation to protect private information, a large portion of the information will already be circulating around the world, but it’s only valid during the period it was gathered in. It’s nearly certain that by today, various intelligence services can piece together impressive profiles of much of the world’s population, though they can only rely on the information gathered during that time. So even if ISIS managed to get its hands on those passwords, and even if they managed to hack your profile during the period between 2012 and 2013 and extract data about you without you knowing about it, the big question is if you were even married at the time.”

“Yup,” he said. “But I was married to my ex-wife, in a house I used to live in. Does this mean that ISIS could get to her?

“If all of these assumptions are true, then yes.” I said. “Maybe you should call her and warn her?”

He hesitated for a moment, and shrugged.

“It’s OK,” he said. “She’ll manage.”

 


 

This article was originally written by me in Hebrew, and translated and published at vpnMentor.

 

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China is Implementing a Social Rating System

I loved her, on the spot. There was something in her stance, her walk, her voice. Hesitantly, I approached and opened a light chat. There was an immediate connection, a feeling of rapport between us. Finally, I dared pop the question – “Do you want to meet again tomorrow?”

She went quiet for a second, then asked to see my social credit rating. I tried to keep my face still while I took out my smartphone and showed it to her.

She went quiet for more than a few seconds…

 

This system – a social credit rating – is in the process of being created and implemented today in China. If it works out well, it’s going to have an impact that will spread far beyond the People’s Republic, and may become part of our lives everywhere. Because, you see, this system might actually be a good idea – as long as we use it wisely.

What is a social credit rating? In a way, it’s similar to the ordinary credit history rating being used in America and other countries. Every person in America, for example, has a credit history that speaks volumes about their past behavior, how soon they return their loans, and how they handle their money. When one applies for a new loan, a mortgage or even for a new credit card, the banks and financial institutes take a good hard look at the inquirer’s credit history to decide whether or not they can be safe giving him that loan.

Up until today, only 320 million individuals in China had any kind of credit history, out of 800 million people registered in China’s central bank. Things are about to change, though, since the Chinese government is authorizing several companies to collect and compare information about the citizens, thus creating an omnipotent, omniscient system that assigns a “social credit rating” to anyone who uses any kind of online services, including dating sites like Baihe, and commercial sites like Alibaba.

And the Chinese people are really gobbling it up.

While it’s obviously difficult to know how the common person in the street is responding, it looks like the Chinese companies (again, under close scrutiny and agreement by the government) really know how to sell the idea to their customers. In fact, they’re letting the customers ‘sell’ the idea themselves to their friends, by turning the social credit rating into a game. People are comparing their ratings to each other, and are showing their ratings on their smartphones and their profiles on dating services. For them, it has become a game.

But it is a game with very serious consequences.

Her face fell when she saw my rating. I talked quickly – “I-It’s not what it looks like. You gotta understand, I didn’t have the money to repay Big Joe last week, but now I’m getting all the wages I was owed. Seriously, it’s OK. I’m OK financially. I really am.”

 

There’s no denying that credit history ratings can serve a positive purpose. They alert individuals and companies to the past history of con artists, scammers and generally unscrupulous people whom you’d rather not have any dealings with. The mere presence of a credit history rating could cause people to trust each other better, and also to behave themselves in their financial dealings. People from market societies tend to deal more fairly with strangers because they know their actions are always counted for or against them. A credit history rating essentially makes sure that everyone knows they are monitored for best behavior – and that’s a powerful force that can help maintain civil order.

It is also a powerful tool in the hands of a government that wants to control its citizens.

She bit her bottom lip, and her brow furrowed. She kept my smartphone in her hand, scrolling down quickly and reading all the fine details. Suddenly she raised her head and stared at me.

“You played Assassin’s Creed for one hundred hours last month?” she demanded to know. I nodded dumbly, and watched as the smile spread slowly on her lips. “I love that game! I play it all the time myself!”

I felt butterflies swimming across my vision. She was obviously The One for me. Such a perfect fit could never happen by chance. And yet, I felt I needed to check one last thing.

“Can I see your social rating too?” I asked timidly, and waited an eternity for her answer.

It’s pretty easy to understand how one’s credit history rating in America is determined. You just need to pay your bills in time in order to maintain a good credit history. A social credit rating, however, is a different thing altogether. At least one of the companies in charge of calculating it, does not agree to expose how the rating is determined, except that the calculation is based on “complex algorithm”. Which essentially means that nobody knows exactly how they’re being judged and rated – except for the big companies and the government.

Does that make you feel like the Chinese are entering into an Orwelian totalitarian rule? It should. There are persistent rumors that the Chinese social credit will be determined according to the users’ online activities in social media. When the Chinese government is in total control, who do you think will get a better social rating: the citizens who support the government unconditionally, or the dissidents who oppose the government’s doings?

In short, a social rating could be a great way for any government to control the population and the opinions and points of view it advocates and stands for. And since the social rating could be a dynamic and constantly changing parameter, it could change rapidly according to every new action a person takes, every sentence and cussword they utter. The government only has to set the rating algorithms – and the automated monitoring and rating systems will do the rest.

I walked back and forth in my small room, silently cursing myself for my foolishness. So what if her social rating was so low? She must have been a supporter of the opposition for it to drop by so much, but what of it? I’m not a political activist anyway. Why should I care?

And yet, I had to admit to myself that I cared. How could I go out with someone with that kind of a low rating? All my friends will know. They’ll laugh at me behind my back. Worse still, my own social rating would go down immediately. I will not only be the laughing stock of my class in the University – I would not even be legible anymore for a scholarship, and all my dreams for a higher degree would end right there and then.

I sighed, and sat back on the squeaky bed. She just wasn’t right for me, in this time in life. Maybe when I have a better social rating, to balance her own. Maybe the algorithms would change their decision about her someday.

But that would probably be too late for us.

 

The social rating system is currently voluntary, but within five years China is planning to rank everyone within its borders. It’s going to be interesting to see how it’s working out for the Chinese. And who knows? Maybe we’ll get to have a taste of the system as well, probably sooner than later. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, is still up to grabs.