Everybody's freaking out over the Wikileaks revelations that the Central Intelligence Agency can hack Apple and Android smartphones, major PC operating systems -- and even TV sets.
It's also creating unnecessary panic. Wikileaks' characterization of the documents was alarmist and misleading. The press picked up on the alarmism and spread further misinformation.
Many in the public believe that the CIA has some new and hitherto unimaginable ability to hack anything. In reality, the Wikileaks documents reveal what we should have already assumed: The CIA collects knowledge about and tools for hacking things.
The Wikileaks/CIA stories simply remind us that anything with a camera, microphone or IP address could theoretically be hacked.
The question is, will the CIA hack you?
I believe the chances that the CIA (or any other hacker) will watch or listen to you, personally, through your smartphone, PC, TV or IP camera are extremely low. It's probably never going to happen. And if it does, it's unlikely that you'll be affected in any way.
Yes, take precautions. Use encrypted communication. Don't click on links emailed from strangers. Cover your laptop camera with tape like Mark Zuckerberg does.
But anxiety and action shouldn't be based only on what could happen in theory as much as what's likely to happen in practice -- and how much it will affect you.
Some people are afraid of sharks. While the prospect of being eaten by a giant fish is vivid and terrifying, it's also unlikely, old chum. In fact, the drive to the beach is far more dangerous than the swim once you get there.
Likewise, avoid getting hacked. But more important, start taking action on the bigger risk: The stuff publicly posted on social sites.
Anything you post can and will be used against you
Politico reported in December that the U.S. government started asking some foreign visitors to provide Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and YouTube accounts, so they can be checked for signs of terrorist connections. It was a pretty gentle request, providing such information is only for those on the visa waiver program, and optional.
In recent months, however, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have begun checking the social media accounts of some U.S. citizens who are also Muslim at the point of entry, rather than as part of the paperwork.
These checks on social media could reveal what travelers have posted publicly. But the government wants the private stuff, too.
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said in an interview this week that the Trump administration wants travelers from certain countries to provide lists of websites they've visited and their online passwords. He wants U.S. Customs "to get on those websites to see what they're looking at."
U.S. Customs is proposing to add all Chinese visitors to the list of people asked to disclose their social media profiles.
Current policy is based on the religion or nationality of travelers and is mostly superficial and voluntary. But the trend is clear: The U.S. government is rapidly expanding the invasiveness of social media checks in order to figure out who is trustworthy -- and who is not.
Other nations are likely to follow the U.S.'s lead, but would search social media based on their own national criteria. Your business trip to Turkey may involve searches that look for support of Kurdish independence. Your vacation to China may involve searching your social accounts for trade secrets to steal. Your weekend in Cuba may end before it begins if Cuban customs agents find a three-year-old tweet shaming hipsters for wearing Che Guevara T-shirts.
Social media scrutiny increasingly affects spheres of life beyond travel.
Some insurance companies are reportedly checking social media to find out if customers live risky lifestyles, raising the cost of premiums for those who do. Some are even denying claims based on social posts.
A CareerBuilder survey last year found that 60% of employers look at the social media posts of prospective employees before choosing which candidate to hire. That number jumped to more than 75% for IT companies, according to the survey.
More than 40% of HR managers routinely check the social media accounts of current employees, and a quarter of them have found something that led to action ranging from reprimands to terminations.
In the past year, CEOs have become the target of intense scrutiny of social posts, according to Ken Springer, a former FBI agent and current president of Corporate Resolutions, a company that performs such checks on behalf of clients.
The bar for acceptable posts by CEOs is high: The CEO of a company called Taylor Gourmet posted a picture of himself with President Trump, which caused a "social media backlash" against the company, according to a report in Bloomberg BNA.
All this checking of social media comes with risks. But today's risks are nothing compared with what's coming.
Social media posts reveal more than you think
Your social media posts are a theoretical open book into your state of mind, opinions, religion, personality and social connections.
One example in the news: Facebook is testing the use of artificial intelligence (A.I.) tools to analyze posts and determine whether people are feeling suicidal. Flagged users are reported to the community operations team for possible intervention.
That's an extreme case where a company is rightly public about its analysis of user mindset based on social media posts. But the ability for social posts to detect mood is demonstrated by a site called We Feel, which aggregates the mood of everybody on Twitter to track the global collective mood.
The analysis of social posts to find out what kind of person you are, how you think, what you believe and how big a "risk" you are to various organizations is about to become big business.
Here's what's going to happen.
'Social media profile' will take on a dark new meaning
In the near future, social media and A.I. will enable any organization to rank people based on trustworthiness.
A Chinese government program called the Social Credit System, which is currently in "beta," seeks to rank everyone in the country.
The Chinese government is compiling data on all citizens based on their legal or criminal records, their financial activity and their activity on social networks. All this data is to be collected, compiled and crunched, resulting in a "social credit score" for each citizen. The score will determine rights, privileges and acceptability in various realms.
Though the program is still in its infancy, the government has already banned some 6.7 million people from flying or even taking high-speed trains because they haven't paid their debts on time, according to a report in The Financial Times.
The social media aspect of this is especially alarming. For example, posting pro-government posts and comments on social media is expected to raise one's score. Posting anything about Tibet or the Dalai Lama is supposed to lower it.
A planning document quoted by The Wall Street Journal summarizes the purpose of the Social Credit System: to "allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step."
Data-driven government control of the population is the Chinese way.
The American way is based on freedom, which in this case means corporations may be free to use social media to decide who they trust.
Software applications are being developed that can identify any person's social media accounts, download every post they've ever made public, and "profile" those people categorically based on comparative analysis.
The ability to use data to categorize people is magnified enormously by the rise in artificial intelligence.
To oversimplify the inevitable process: Everything known about you (say, your name, location, age, gender, your family and friends and other information) will be fed into A.I. systems that will scan the social web to find all your profiles. The systems will then copy every post, photo or comment you've ever posted. The A.I. will recognize patterns, interpret the photos and parse the comments.
The output of these systems will be a profile or dossier on you, and it will advise users about whether to deny your request for a visa, turn down your loan application, avoid hiring you, reject your insurance claims, rebuff your business partnership proposals and more.
In other words, A.I. will use data on social networks to rank people based on how much they can be trusted.
The worst part is that this trust-judging process happens invisibly behind the scenes. When you don't get that job or loan, you'll never know why.
Yes, the CIA can hack your TV. But it probably won't.
The bigger risk is social media. Because anything you post can and will be used against you.