Personal Data Scattered To The Four Winds

by Kevin Burton

   Yes, of course you’re going to do your due diligence, you’ll do what you can. But is this a lost cause already?

   I’m talking about the safe keeping of your personal data, personal identifying information. The intimate details of your life.

   How much of that information do you truly imagine isn’t already in the hands of the wrong people?  Wrong people here I’m defining as anybody outside your household, other than your medical team and maybe a financial team.

   If those wrong people are merely trying to sell you the latest gadget, count yourself blessed.  The aims of the wrong people often go well beyond that.

This came to mind late last month when I read a story on the BBC, under the headline, “Japanese man loses USB stick with entire city’s personal details” written by reporter Matt Murphy.

   “For many, after-work drinks are a common way of relaxing after a busy week.

But one worker in Japan could be nursing a protracted hangover after he lost a USB memory stick following a night out with colleagues,” Murphy wrote.

   “Why? It contained the personal details of nearly half a million people.”

   “The unnamed man placed the memory stick in his bag before an evening of drinking in the city of Amagasaki, north-west of Osaka,” Murphy wrote. “He spent several hours drinking in a local restaurant before eventually passing out on the street, local media reported.”

   “When he eventually came around, he realized that both his bag and the memory stick were missing.”

   “The Japanese broadcaster NHK reports that the man, said to be in his 40s, works for a company tasked with providing benefits to tax-exempt households,” Murphy wrote. “He had transferred the personal information of the entire city’s residents onto the drive on Tuesday evening before meeting colleagues for a night on the town.”

   “City officials said the memory stick included the names, birth dates, and addresses of all the city’s residents. It also included more sensitive information, including tax details, bank account numbers and information on families receiving social security.”

   My question at this point, why did this memory stick have to leave the work site?  Why would he be taking it home or anywhere else? 

   “Luckily for the man, city officials said the data contained on the drive is encrypted and locked with a password. They added that there has been no sign that anyone has attempted to access the information so far,” Murphy wrote.

   “But the embarrassing incident prompted an apology from officials, with the city’s mayor and other leaders bowing in apology to residents. ‘We deeply regret that we have profoundly harmed the public’s trust in the administration of the city,’ an Amagasaki city official told a press conference.”

   Does that last bit, about the password and encryption, comfort you?

   Some people drink their morning coffee, then set about writing clever lines for the insides of greeting cards. Others however, set out to solve mysteries such as encryptions because on the other side of the effort is money, power or both.

   And if the good guys have a good month and stay a step or two ahead of cybercriminals, it can all be undone by some guy on a bender.

   “Nearly a week before WikiLeaks revealed that the Central Intelligence Agency may be using personal electronic devices for espionage, a lawsuit settlement admonished Facebook for reading messages the company had led its users to believe were private,” wrote Marissa Lang in the San Francisco Chronicle. These were not the first instances in which Facebook and the federal government have been accused of gathering information from people’s private devices, conversations or even homes.”

   “And they won’t be the last.”

   “What both cases show, experts said, is a grim slice of reality: When it comes to digital data — photos, conversations, health information or finances — nothing can be perfectly private,” Lang wrote.
   “Overwhelmed with stories of hacks, attacks and the prying eyes of private companies and public agencies, fatigued consumers may feel even attempting to protect themselves in a digital age is futile, security experts said.
   “That, they added, is exactly the wrong approach.”
   “The truth is there’s no silver bullet,” said John Breyault, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League. “There’s no foolproof way to protect your privacy and data security from the government, for example. But there are plenty of basic, important steps people can take to reduce their risk.”

   This is where we will pick up the topic tomorrow, with some advice from the New York Times and elsewhere on how to protect data.

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