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Edelman: Technology will only become more intrusive in 2020

Tomorrow, a new year and a new decade start. Fasten your seat belts. We are in for a bumpy ride.

2020 is a presidential election year. We will be assaulted by political ads, mostly telling us how evil the candidate’s opponent is. We know we’ll be swamped by political pundits sharing of their infinite wisdom, their dark imprecations that only the candidate they endorse can save our nation from the other side’s wicked ways. We will have almost the entire year to suffer those attacks on our sanity.

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I apologize in advance for the lot of us and invite my counterparts on the other side of the political divide to rein in the vitriol. There will be plenty of times and other columns for us to earn your cheers for our brilliant insights, or your jeers for our outrageous stupidity.

Let’s then look at something else: 2020 will be a year where technology continues to intrude on our lives. The Web and the devices we connect to it will gather massive amounts of personal information. When you use a search engine, say Google, they learn what you’re interested in. Maybe you’re checking out places to eat. Google now knows that about you. You browsed to find the best new phone or to check online prices for the toys you bought your kids for Christmas.

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The time you browsed, the items you researched, the sites you visited, Google has captured. And that information has value. That data helps advertisers and their clever algorithms customize ads that match your interests and insert them on the web pages you visit. Even your mouse movements are useful — they tell Google which ads you hovered over but didn’t click on. Sharp hedge fund managers will also buy that information, not to spam you with ads, but to help them analyze trends and find the next company to invest in. Those selfies you post to Instagram might be used by some developers to train their facial recognition software. It might be benign for your phone to use its camera to recognize your face, but that same technology helps the Chinese government maintain Big Brother-like control of its population.

Got a smartphone? It most likely has GPS, and it knows where you’ve been. Wear a fitness tracker? It knows a lot about you, too. And your smart speakers are listening all the time for “hey Siri” or “Alexa, tell me a bedtime story.”

Did you use one of those genomic testing kits, the things that tell you you’re 6% Kansas Kickapoo, even though your parents emigrated from the Outer Hebrides? Your DNA now is part of a very large data base that the test kit’s company will peddle to pharmaceutical companies.

You don’t pay Google for searches or using Gmail or the array of apps they make available. The information you provide and they gather is valuable enough for them to get rich selling it to university researchers or law enforcement - or the Russians.

Personal data covers a lot of territory. Some of it can be quite sensitive: your bank accounts and SSN, for example, are data you want to keep as secure as possible. Other of it includes you posts on social media, search engine activity, your web browsing history. How your data gets used is frequently buried in legalese and small type in the terms-of-service agreements you invariably agree to without ever reading them. How valuable is all this stuff you give away for free? According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, American corporations spent around $19 billion in 2018 to get it.

The greater risk that exposing all that personal information poses is identity theft. It’s one thing to use your shopping history to hit you with ads on a web page, quite another for someone to gain access to your bank account and credit card. The United States is rather weak in enacting consumer protection laws, such as the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. The GDPR became law in 2018. It gives consumers control over their personal information and allows people to review the personal data companies hold and to ask them to delete it. Absent such laws, it falls to us to take precautions.

There’s a wealth of information on where else, the web, about protecting passwords and financial information from attack. You might wish to add a New Year’s resolution to change your passwords and use a password manager to create strong ones. And the weakest link in any personal security program is you. By now you should know better than to open any message or click on any link from a source you don’t recognize and trust. There’s a wealth of information from trustworthy sources on protecting your personal information. It’s a very good idea to review your data security plan, and if you don’t have one, to develop one.

Well, 2020 is hours away. Best wishes for a happy new year to you and your family.

Mitch Edelman writes from Finksburg. Email him at mjemath@gmail.cm

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