All of the noise being made about Google’s change, as well as a recent announcement by the United States’ Obama Administration of a privacy blueprint for online consumers, has certainly muddied the water. But at the core of the complicated issue of Internet privacy are several viewpoints: one of high expectations for privacy and another of few privacy expectations.
Those with high expectations of privacy argue Internet privacy should be as important as that which we have in our own homes. “Private lives, personal secrets, confidential information – all of it is potentially compromised by the vast network of Internet data sharing,” said Buffalo News columnist Donn Esmonde recently. That sort of sharing, say privacy advocates, is too much. Users of websites like Facebook and YouTube wish that the companies running the sites would make their data sharing policies more transparent and offer clearer ways to opt out of data sharing schemes. “The consequences of being open with our personal information are dangerous as we further lose more of our personal freedoms,” these privacy advocates say.
Of those who have fewer privacy expectations online, their opinion is typically based on the wealth of free online products and services (like most of Google’s offerings) we help ourselves to on a daily basis. Because they’re free, these people say, our expectation for privacy should be low. “After all, the services are free,” said Forbes contributor Scott Goodson in a recent article about Google, “so surely we should understand they come at a price?” What is the price? Google and other free sites gather as much data as possible about you to better target advertising — a major source of income for such providers — at you. Additionally, this group also points out the information that retailers, credit card companies, utilities, and other businesses collect on us without too much public complaint. “Our privacy has long been in short supply,” they argue, “so why the outcry now?”
Regardless of which side of the argument you take, the realization should be that addressing online privacy is not a black and white issue. While we should have some expectation of privacy, especially with services we pay for, how reasonable is it to lose some of our privacy when using free online services? Where do we draw the line when it comes to how much of our personal data and online history is distributed and used?
That said, here are five ways to better protect your personal data online, or at least limit what gets passed on to others:
1. Make sure you’re not logged in to a Google service before using Google’s search engine. This won’t completely prevent your web surfing and usage habits from being tracked. Rather, Google will track you by your computer’s slightly more anonymous numeric Internet address, often called an IP address.
2. Check the privacy settings on your social media accounts from time to time as policies change frequently. Facebook is notorious for constantly changing not only how your data is displayed, but also how private it remains. As of this writing, you can verify your Facebook privacy settings by clicking the drop-down arrow in the top toolbar and selecting “Privacy Settings.” Other sites like LinkedIn and Twitter have similar ways of checking this.
3. Be careful with the “helpful” password saving features inherent in many browsers, especially when using a public computer or device. Before you use the browser on a public computer, make sure the password saving feature is disabled. Otherwise, you risk making more information than you intend available to others who may use the device.
4. It requires a little effort, but if you’re willing, install a browser extension like Ghostery. Once installed and configured, Ghostery will detect and block those tracking tools you don’t wish website owners to be using on you while you surf the Internet.
5. Support the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and learn about the new technologies that threaten to disrupt your online privacy.
• “More privacy” opinion: How to Get Privacy Right
• “Less privacy” opinion: Being Tracked by Google Isn’t Bad—It’s Actually Good
Photo via DonkeyHotey, Flickr Creative Commons
The political scandal du jour involves New York congressman Anthony Weiner. Last week a conservative media group charged him with sending lewd pictures to a 21 year old woman via his Twitter account.
Initially, the congressman denied the allegation, claiming that his account was hacked and it was just a juvenile prank. As more pictures began to surface, the congressman admitted to sending the image in question and many others to six different women over the last three years.
This practice, known as sexting (sex + texting), has gotten a lot of people in trouble, as it leaves a trail of data that can easily be uncovered. The disgraced legislator is now paying the price for his reckless behavior in cyberspace. He has refused to resign from office, despite calls from some of his colleagues and many of his political opponents.
As convoluted as Weiner’s denial was, it was not implausible that he had been hacked. It’s easier than you may think to hack someone’s Twitter account. If you’re curious, here’s one way to do it. For other possible explanations, read Errata Security’s “Weiner Schnitzel” story.
Of course we now know what really happened. For once, hackers weren’t responsible. But this sordid story still offers lessons for everyone. As the hacks of corporations like Sony, Gmail and most recently, Citibank, make clear, online security as got to be improved–and fast.
In the meantime, take your own personal security precautions. If you use Twitter, limit access to your account. Have a unique password that you only use for Twitter. Use a strong password, change it periodically and keep it secure.
Remember that social media is designed to help you share information. Privacy settings notwithstanding, assume that anything you share online can be viewed publicly and act accordingly.
As for sexting, some things are best done offline, don’t you think?
The short answer is “you are”–you and the 2 billion other people who use the Internet. More on this in a moment.
There’s also another “anonymous,” an amorphous group of people around the world who claim they’re fighting for free speech. Because of their cyber-attacks on targets as diverse as Sony’s PlayStation Network (Anonymous denies stealing any customer data) and the governments of Tunisia and Egypt, Anonymous has been branded as criminals. But depending on your point of view, this rebellious band can also be seen as Internet freedom fighters.
According to their YouTube manifesto published last December, “We are not a terrorist organization as governments, demagogues, and the media would have your believe. Rather, Anonymous is a spontaneous collective of people who share the common goal of protecting the free flow of information on the Internet.” Anonymous has compared their actions to those of American Civil Rights workers of the 1960s.
Members of the collective reportedly include software programmers, professionals and IT types. They take down websites by using denial-of-service attacks. Anonymous harnesses an army of zombie computers to direct simultaneous service requests to a website, causing the server to overload and then crash. They claim, “We do no damage to the computer hardware.”
Anonymous attacked Visa, MasterCard and PayPal when the companies stopped processing donations for Wikileaks. The group crashed Egyptian government websites in retaliation for taking the country offline. More recently, they embarrassed HBGary, a computer security firm with numerous high level government and corporate clients, by hacking into its network.
In many ways, the Internet remains a new frontier. There’s a certain romance to a band of outliers who pledge to protect free speech by challenging multinational corporations and governments. Of course the targets of the attacks hardly see it that way and are actively trying to round up these outlaws. Will they succeed?
Being anonymous is one of the great strengths of the Internet. We don’t hesitate to research subjects online that might prove too sensitive to discuss face-to-face with a research librarian. We buy products online that we might be too embarrassed to purchase in a retail store. Then there’s the porn industry, which makes billions of dollars from its anonymous clients. Concealing one’s identity has advantages.
The only way to unmask Anonymous is for all of us to reveal ourselves as well. The question is, are we ready to pay that price?