The Quest for Online Privacy

With online privacy such a hot potato round about now, it is worth remembering Convention 108, which was agreed back in 1981. This was the first ever treaty to address the issues of data protection and privacy, and it is commemorated annually (on 28 January) on so-called “Data Privacy Day”. At the same time every year, Data Privacy Month is a campaign that aims to clue people in on how they should go about protecting their own privacy and controlling their digital footprints, as well as giving these matters a higher priority day by day.

How online privacy became a personal matter

online privacyJeffrey Schiller, who is a technologist at M.I.T. specializing in network security, has remarked that the free exchange of information using computers was actually the internet’s “original purpose.” Furthermore, according to Schiller, the early days of the internet and computers “were not personal.” That’s because most people who used the web in those days did so as part of their job or academic studies at college. While it is true that internet users had email addresses, these were NOT provided for personal use.

The bottom line in all this is that the need to protect personal data online was never seen as important in the early 1980s. Of course, that all changed when personal computers became a big deal for ordinary people, who soon wanted to buy goods and services as well as communicate potentially sensitive information via email.

How much should we share online?

To be fair, most people are happy enough if they believe they control at least some of their privacy online. As an example, the majority of folks are keen not to reveal their place of residence, their bank account details, and their daily schedules and routines.

On the other hand, they’ll happily blaze away in Facebook comments and blog postings and think nothing about having their real names attached to their rantings! Furthermore, they’ll book a vacation online and post a ton of snaps on Facebook revealing to the world EXACTLY where they went.

Now, that’s all fine and dandy, but one must accept that it’s risky to allow too much information of a personal nature to slip out into the online world, because time and again this information has turned out to be a handy weapon for stalkers and cyber bullies, who sometimes use it to drive their victims to take their own lives. In addition, fraudsters love to harvest personal info in a bid to steal individuals’ entire identities!

Jeffrey Schiller sums it up: “It’s all about risk.” And, the technology expert recommends that we should never place any material on the web that could lead to us serving jail time or losing our jobs.

Gathering of data

It is important to understand that companies such as Facebook and Google are all about gathering user data for their own financial gain. To this end, they collect that data every time we log in and use their services, so if we don’t like it the nuclear option would be to close our accounts pronto.

Unfortunately, that option is not so attractive, because these companies provide services we find useful, which means we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. For instance, searching Google is the most usual way to find information nowadays, but the search terms we use, and the websites we then visit, all get logged by Google’s systems, and the tech giant then serves up targeted advertising to us by way of return. Additionally, third-party marketing firms pay cash money for data collected about us, which can lead to a variety of marketing materials being mailed to us, unwanted or not.

Further, it’s not just companies that suck out our data. Government snoops also want a piece of the pie, and this can spell big trouble for anybody who is targeted by such agencies.

The question of anonymity

Unlikely as it might sound, it IS possible to achieve anonymity online, but there are no guarantees. Basically, anyone looking to be anonymous is required to pay attention to certain things, namely their IP address, MAC address of the device used to connect, as well as browser cookies. These all have to be masked since they can and do link back to YOU.

If you want to go a stage further, you can opt to use something called Tor, which will make anonymous both the device/network you are using and your destination (server or target website). If you live in a nation where the government loves to restrict the online activities of its citizens, you can bet that Tor is your best bet for dodging the issue.

However, useful as it is, Tor is not foolproof, because traffic that is not encrypted can easily get captured when it reaches what are called exit nodes. In particular, it should be noted that the people who run these exit nodes can choose to “sniff” the web traffic coming through, and unscrupulous individuals may launch an attack on you.

How to block trackers

Browser cookies come in two basic varieties: those that assist websites to run correctly, and ones that are designed to grab data for its moneymaking potential. Normally, when you browse online, cookies in the first category are stored so that the website can memorize your preferences for the next time you pay a visit. On the other hand, cookies in category two are designed to funnel information to advertisers plus other firms concerning how you behave online, the hyperlinks you click, and what websites you look at.

If you want to keep tabs on this kind of data, and prevent it from being stored, you can choose to activate the private browsing mode offered by most modern internet browsers. If you do so, all cookies generated during a browsing session will get wiped the minute you exit the program.

A second popular choice for privacy hounds is to use an alternative search engine, for example StartPage or DuckDuckGo. Unlike Google, these do not track users in the same way; nor do they store logs of which websites you visit.

Another useful thing is to make use of browser plug-ins like Disconnect and Ghostery, which are designed to block tracker cookies in real time.

All the actions described above require you to be a little more tech savvy than the average. If you are unsure, your firm’s IT support team should be able to help you.