Privacy and probabilities

 For some time now I''ve itched in the presence of those obsessed with their privacy.

The issue of personal privacy may--for some of us--not be as pressing or exciting as Israel and Palestine, but it is endemic to the gadgets that almost all of us enjoy. If you say "Not me," you''re fooling yourself while reading this online via a pc, laptop, or smartphone.

The issue is political tinder insofar as  governmental and commercial entities have reached the potential of knowing a great deal about our possessions, intentions, as well as our sentiments about products and political issues.

Thanks to a couple of recent events, the issue has become even clearer to me.

Amidst the wonders of modern communication that has made life easier, more enjoyable, and more profitable, there isn''t any assurance of privacy.

Those who demand more safeguards are out of step with technological realities.

However, the probabilities are on our side. There are no guanantees, bit it''s unlikely--for most of us--that anyone will discover what we don''t want discovered.

One insight came at a family gathering, which included adults fiddling with their smartphones. We were taking pictures of the little ones, which would be sent to one another. We were glancing at the news about the latest gore in Syria and Egypt, what was happening at the stock exchanges of Europe and the US,, as well as e-mails and text messages.

Another insight came on the heels of a hot issue in New York City politics,  and for me a new word also reaching me via the internet. "Sexting," I learned with a few clicks, has to do with sending sexually explicit messages or pictures via those smartphones.

Be careful is the appropriate motto. Do something stupid, and it will stay somewhere, perhaps to be undigitalized and haunt you in business, politics, or something personal.

Yet another insight came from a conversation that produced the information that all e-mails sent via Gmail are stored somewhere, and mined for what they can tell Google and its customers about who knows what. 

Against the possibility that I was hearing an urban legend, I spent some time--you guessed it--Googling. After about one minute of moderate effort I happened on what looks like confirmation.

"Google can read the contents of the emails stored in GMail. That''s explicit: they officially scan the email contents . . .  

Is Google reading my mail?

No, but automatic scanning and filtering technology is at the heart of Gmail. Gmail scans and processes all messages using fully automated systems in order to do useful and innovative stuff like filter spam, detect viruses and malware, show relevant ads, and develop and deliver new features across your Google experience. Priority Inbox, spell checking, forwarding, auto-responding, automatic saving and sorting, and converting URLs to clickable links are just a few of the many features that use this kind of automatic processing.

(This answer can be summed up as: "no, we do not read your emails, except that we totally do read them, but, trust us, that''s for your own good".)"

The news about our e-mails was a surprise, but a bit of thought rendered it obvious.

And I presume it applies not only to Gmail, but to other mass providers of free e-mail. 

Modern communications pass through devices that store as well as transmit. If we can retrieve what we sent, received, and filed away in all those convenient slots, so can others. Cloud technology, Dropbox, Skype, newspapers, radio and tv from around the world, as well as our bank accounts means that it is all accessible to anyone who has the keys, which are themselves available  to those who know how. 

It is convenient to assume that Google is not interested in what Charlie Jones or Shlomo Cohen writes in their e-mails, but how the mass of clients--and those in various geographic and demographic categories--write about something with commercial value that Google can assemble, interpret, sell to companies or use in their own concern to sell more ads.

Several jurisdictions have taken action against Google for its management of the search engine and--against other providers as well as Google--for privacy issues associated with social networking. Mining of our e-mails for our own good (e.g., against spam, viruses or malware), or for commercial purposes appears to have attracted less attention from governments.

We know from the likes of Edward Snowden what we could have guessed, i.e., that the US Government (most likely other governments including Israel''s) use similar tools to screen personal communications by the billions in order to identify what may be brewing as threats to national security.

Available to modern technology are not only most of what we write, but also what we speak. Telephone calls as well as text messages and e-mails pass from one mechanism to another in digital form, and are there for the picking by those with the desire, skill, and resources.

Hopefully, we can count on the public relations sensitivities of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Amazon, other managers of our data--as well as governments--to avoid scandals likely to come if they move from a macro to a micro concern with the contents of e-mail. If there is an equivalent of Edward Snowden in one of the those companies with a desire to embarrass, then Charlie Jones or Shlomo Cohen might find an e-mail they would rather not go public, along with their names and addresses, leaked to the media. Given the skills of corporate follow-up, such an errant employee might not last for long within the firm, even though would not, most likely, have to camp out for weeks in a distant transit lounge. 

Must the likes of you and me worry about an invasion of our privacy and the pirating of our resources?

Probabilities are more importance than assurances.

Chances are that there is so much out there, coming from so many people, that there is a small chance of harm landing on any one of us.

We can increase our chances by being careful and small.

Careful means not to do anything that will bite us in the rear. Assume that everything we say or write will be available for all to see. We should do no sexting nor allow digital photos of us doing anything embarrassing. and not be sloppy about passwords. 

Being small means to avoid sufficient wealth, the appearance of wealth, or any kind of fame that would attract those who go to the trouble of penetrating security.

If one cannot control one''s zipper, tongue, or the fingers that write e-mail, running for public office should not be in the plan. Competing for the mayoralty of New York City is a sure invitation to snooping

In short, one can forget about assurances for privacy in the digital age, but the probabilities benefit almost all of us.

Probabilities are part of what is modern. They are inherent in the best guidance received from physicians, investment advisers, weather forecasters, those who analyze political campaigns and predict the winners, those who bet on sporting events or anything else, as well as expectations of being harmed by a violation of our privacy. They are far more pervasive than certainty.