Published in Editorials

The problem with messenger applications... there really is no privacy and never was

by on16 February 2015 3748 times

There are many things that people take for granted in the world. Some of them are more than a little naïve while others are quite understandable. One of them is that the things we say or do in conversation are somewhat confidential. We do not expect our mail, phone or personal conversations to be listened to and by extension we feel that our online conversation are equally private. Sadly this is simply not the case and, in reality, it never has been.

Whether it is Microsoft, Yahoo, Steam, Google, AIM, or Apple the information we put into our chat applications is monitored and in most cases tracked and journaled. We first saw this inside applications like AIM and MSN Messenger when certain links would be removed and replaced with warnings about copyright violation. This showed that both AOL and Microsoft were looking at what we typed and checking for certain patterns. We found out later that they were also keeping records of conversations for up to 60 days to meet legal requirements.

Later, after revelations from Edward Snowden, we found that there was more to it than simply looking out for copyright violations. The NSA was potentially grabbing and storing those conversations: just in case. Because of this long history of snooping, storing and otherwise really bad behavior on the part of big corporations and the government we were not surprised to read that Valve is now censoring references to certain torrent sites in their chat application.

It seems that if you mention the message simply drops into a blackhole while links to other kickass domains get you a warning about potentially unsafe content. Again this is an automated system that someone added to, but it shows that even Steam is scanning what you talk about when you use their chat app. It makes you wonder what else they are looking for with their automated systems and what they do with those messages when they find them.

What makes this situation even more interesting is that behavior like this is one of the reasons that judges have consistently ruled that you do not have an expectation of privacy online. Instead of correcting the behavior and forcing companies to remove the filters and tracking they simply let them violate your privacy and use the offending behavior as grounds to let it continue.

There is no need for journaling on every account for a chat application. If law enforcement needs something they can put in a warrant and ask for that person (or persons) accounts to be monitored in the same way they do with phone taps and over surveillance. Just because the communication is electronic and easier to monitor should not remove the legal protections we have for our regular communication. Sadly the need to collect, catalog and process everything about us by the companies we do business with is what dives privacy online further and further from reality.

So next time you are online talking to someone over ANY chat or messaging application, remember that everything you say is being stored on someone’s servers… you know, just in case.
What do you think?

Last modified on 16 February 2015
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