True or false: are your online activities private and anonymous? False. Almost everything thing you do online--whether it's searching for information, reading a news article, shopping for a gift or downloading music--is recorded. As you move through cyberspace you leave a trail of digital data in your wake. This trail, often referred to as a clickstream, contains a revealing record of your online activities.
How It Works
When you're online, your computer, known as a client, requests information from a remote computer, known as a server. To do this, you click a link. This instructs the server to send you the information you requested. Think of all the clicking you do as you surf the Web. Although it may seem insignificant, to some people, your clickstream has great value.
Most websites, including Learn the Net, store data about visitors to the site. For instance, we know what site you came from, which pages you visited, how long you stayed on the site, which files you downloaded, and many other related bits of information about your activities. If you register with a website, the site can identify who you are each time you visit. (But even if you didn't register, it's still possible to discover who you are by matching records from your Internet Service Provider or ISP.)
All this information is stored in log files that the site operator can analyze. The information is typically used to improve the website and deliver personalized and more relevant content. For instance, we know that many Learn the Net visitors read articles about e-mail, so we try to publish more information on this topic. Understanding readers' preferences also helps publishers attract advertisers of interest to its audience. While web publishers only have user data from their own sites, your ISP has a complete record of every click you make online. In the wrong hands, this clickstream data poses a serious threat to your privacy.
Let's say you play online poker. Would you want your spouse to know about it? Or suppose you use Yahoo! or Google to search for information about cancer treatments. Would you want your health insurer to learn about it? Maybe not.
Record your searches, the sites you visit, files you download, your IM sessions, your purchases, visits to Facebook and all other online activity for a few days. Now analyze this data to see what it reveals about you.
Once all these bits of data are pieced together, a picture of you emerges, one that you may not want to share with the rest of the world. Even though you may be a law abiding citizen, some details of your online activity can be embarrassing. Worse, it may be misinterpreted. For instance, what if you are doing research about alcoholism? How might your employer interpret this? What if you are researching a report on terrorist organizations? Would you want law enforcement agencies to know about it?
As you can see, in a perfect world, you should be the master of your clickstream. Your trail of digital data should be as private as your telephone conversations, mail and other communications. Unfortunately, there has been a steady erosion of the privacy of online activities. The U.S. government has subpoenaed search records from AOL, Google MSN, and Yahoo! A number of data-mining companies now trade in personal information. The purpose of this article is not to make you paranoid, only to make you aware of the current situation and its implications.
Concealing Your Clickstream
If you have privacy concerns, you can limit the amount of information collected about you. Here are some resources that we recommend:
You can also use The Cloak to surf a website anonymously.
Finally, if you use Internet Explorer 8, there's a feature called InPrivate Browsing, which according to Microsoft, "...helps prevent Internet Explorer from storing data about your browsing session. This includes cookies, temporary Internet files, history, and other data." Note that it doesn't prevent sites you visit from gathering data. You'll find this feature under the Safety menu on the toolbar.