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youre under surveillance

What are you reading this summer? Actually, don't bother answering. We already know.

What are you reading this summer?

Actually, don’t bother answering. We already know.

If you haven’t told us yourself in punishing detail on Facebook, then Amazon is tracking your purchases and your Kindle is keeping track of which pages you read and even which sentences you highlight.

For example, the Kobo e-reader, majority-owned by big Toronto book chain Indigo, which recently sold it to Japanese interests, knows that the average reader of the Hunger Games series takes seven hours to plough through the final book. Kobo also knows which 18,000 of them highlighted the phrase “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.”

This insight from modern literature has surpassed even the opening line of Pride and Prejudice as the most highlighted sentence among Kobo’s millions of users.

It’s the same for newspapers. A window on the website of the Toronto Globe and Mail lets you know that your Great Aunt Edna just read Celebrity Menage a Trois Goes Public and that your friend’s wife just read What I Wished I’d Known Before I Got Divorced.

Presumably they also know that I recently read Japan’s Economy Grows More Slowly Than Expected in Second Quarter.

It is amazing how dramatically our privacy has eroded in the last 20 years, often with our own permission or at least grudging acceptance. (No one forced you to sign up for Facebook, after all.)

When I grew up in Whitehorse, the only video camera I can remember was the one in the black plastic sphere in the ceiling of Hougen’s. It looked like the thing Darth Vader was going to use to torture Princess Leia, and there was considerable debate in school as to whether it even had a camera in it or just a red light to scare the kids who liked to shoplift.

Now there are cameras all over the place. According to rumour, you can even be caught by concealed cameras on the Chilkoot Trail. They may be there to catch photos of passing animals, but one has a sneaking suspicion that the Parks Canada coffee room bulletin board has photos of Yukon hikers (maybe you!) watering alpine plants or rounding a corner with a finger up a nostril.

Your smartphone, of course, is tracking your every movement. The police have been doing this for years, including picking up two Yukon murder suspects in Edmonton last year based on cellphone signals.

But now phone tracking has become ubiquitous. While this is handy if you get lost in Vancouver and need the map function, it also means everyone from the phone company to your spouse knows where you’ve been.

This is, of course, already coming up in divorce cases, where it is of interest that your iPhone and a hot pink iPhone not belonging to your spouse spent a few hours together at the Shady Acres Motel.

Some parents are said to give their children iPhones so they can track them more easily on the family iMac. That may sound useful, but today’s web-savvy teenager could soon turn the tables on dad’s amateurish surveillance operation. “How’s getting in shape going, dad? Your iPhone says you did half of Copper at Mount Mac and then spent two hours at the Roadhouse.”

Google is another privacy menace. Some researchers a few years ago got anonymized search data from Google, but soon realized that since most people Google themselves it was easy to match the search data with individuals. As John Le Carre points out in one of his spy novels, the questions you ask can be amazingly revealing.

Your computer has also changed. Ten years ago, you thought of your computer as a device that occasionally connected to the network. Now, a dozen or more applications are constantly communicating with headquarters about your Internet usage, program bugs, automatic backups and so on. And that’s before someone installs nefarious “malware” to track your keystrokes or download your passwords.

Of course Parks Canada and even Kobo aren’t really high on the list of the world’s villains. So what if they know you looked horribly out of shape on the Chilkoot or stopped reading Aristotle on page 3 and picked up The Hunger Games instead? Does it hurt you if Toronto book chains make millions of dollars selling their e-reader and your customer data to the Japanese?

Maybe not. But if you have business, government or other secrets to hide, all of this is a serious worry. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that savvy business and government travellers to China are taking serious precautions. Apparently these include leaving your regular laptop and smartphone at home and bringing loaners, keeping your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned off, taking the battery out of your phone during meetings and using a USB thumb drive to paste your password instead of typing it.

Of course this assumes that you and your mining deal are important enough for Chinese intelligence to watch you on behalf of whatever state-owned mining company you are negotiating with. Do Yukon miners and officials attract the attention of eavesdroppers on their trade missions to China?

If they do, one feels a little bit sorry for the Chinese intelligence summer student who had to monitor Yukon minister Jim Kenyon’s Blackberry during his trade missions to China.

You still read occasionally about government privacy agencies and various things they are doing to protect us from the digital age. But the tidal wave of data is too big. In the old days, parents used to say things like “Before you do something, think about whether you’d be happy if your grandmother read about it on the front page of the newspaper.”

This now applies to everything you do on a digital device or even one in your pocket, especially if your grandmother has the smartphone tracking app installed on her Macbook Air.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.