We use the internet every day. It’s impossible to imagine our lives without it. We would feel quite primitive without email, social networking, shopping, or the good ol’ Google search.
It’s quite clear that the internet plays a major role in our day-to-day routine. But have you ever thought about the traces left by this routine? Have you ever thought about the risks? Did it ever occur to you that all your online presence is traced and stored somewhere for potential usage?
Privacy on the internet has gone from what used to be a subject of interest only to ‘geeks’ or ‘paranoia freaks’ to something that is of global relevance nowadays and has been the rallying cry against computer-based technologies that have amplified the power of human beings over information. Thanks to the internet, today we are able to gather, store, analyze, play with, and manipulate information in historically unprecedented ways, and it has become the primary focus of companies to do all of this. Let’s take some examples.
I use Google. You use Google. We are all Google-dependent. The company behind the most efficient and successful search-engine, the biggest online video-sharing website, the most popular e-mail provider, the most popular maps and GPS system (I could go on and on…) does its magic by collecting, gathering and correlating user data.
Sure, you might say “Yes, but Google’s efficiency comes from all this data!“. I am not saying that it doesn’t, I am just saying that we don’t actually know what else it’s doing with your data. Data about your location, music & movies preferences, e-mail correspondence, what problems you have in your professional, private or sex life, health is present in Google’s data centers. We can safely say that Google knows you better than your parents or your life partner.
I shop on Amazon. Maybe you do too. The biggest retailer in the world. Amazon is the company that grew the most in the last years and is expected to become the first company in the world to be valued at $1 trillion. More and more people do their shopping online today: clothes, electronics, books… you name it, it’s all there. But have you ever noticed that when you come back on the Amazon website or mobile app, it already suggests articles related to what you have been searching for?
Amazon isn’t the biggest online retailer in the world for no reason: it optimizes very carefully the items that are presented to you when you come back. All this based on your shopping preferences and history. Chances are, everything you see on Amazon has been arranged just for you.
I guess you’ve heard of “If you’re not on Facebook, you don’t exist”. The biggest social networking on the planet. No need to say more. All your photos, videos, feelings, check-ins and statuses are there. Facebook has a complete intimate profile of you, based on all this info you willingly provided. At this time of writing, every 60 seconds on Facebook, there are 510 000 posted comments, 293 000 status updates, and 136 000 photo uploads (according to The Social Skinny). Every move you make on Facebook is analysed, and it all goes into permanent storage: statuses, comments, education, work, friends, likes, photos, events, date/time/location of logins, messages and even deleted messages. Subsequently, the ads you see on Facebook are customized based on every action you take and every piece of information you put on your profile.
A nice example is what happened to me two days ago, when I wanted to buy a new UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply), and I asked one of my friends on Facebook what model he owns. One hour later, while scrolling through posts, my page was full of ads about UPS offers, and even the model that my friend had told me about at a promotional price… on Amazon! This is a proof that intimacy does not exist.
This doesn’t mean that someone out there intentionally eavesdropped the conversation, it’s just Facebook’s robots that process and check the data for optimizing the ads for you afterwards. But how can you be sure that all this information, sensitive or not, will not end up somewhere else? How much information about you is being collected without your knowledge?
Enough with examples, I think you already got my point. I just want to point something out: none of these companies makes efforts to help you understand what they are doing with your data; on the contrary, they are hiding it from you. When you buy something on Amazon you obviously need to supply your name, address, phone number, right? You certainly need to supply your name, birth date, address, phone number when you create a new Gmail account. Don’t even get me started about Facebook; you can even enter your political views.
“But if I want, I can just delete my personal info and activities and voilà“
Not really. On Facebook’s servers, there is a background check service called Social Intelligence that automatically creates archives of every Facebook profile and photo with privacy settings marked “Everyone”. The company saves everything for 7 years, even if you deleted it. Actually, when you delete for example a status that you previously update, you only delete the reference to it, but not the actual status. Once you put something online, it’s out of your control.
Then what is this all about?
Haven’t I said it already? Data! Your own personal, private data! Once you know someone’s name, address, date and place of birth and email (data we all give away so easily), then it is only a small step to identify further data belonging to that person. It makes it ridiculously easy for someone to impersonate you.
Imagine that you loose your password on a website. You can easily reset your password, but for this you have to prove that you are who you say you are. How do you do this? You have to enter your name, favorite cat’s name (that everybody knows from your Facebook photos), your favorite teacher (since you declared what high-school or university you attended on Facebook). And believe me, if for a human being it only takes several tens of minutes (tops) to find out all this about you, then rest assured that for companies with massive computing capabilities it is only a matter of milliseconds.
Because data nowadays can be mathematically manipulated, it is susceptible to very sophisticated analysis, and this sophistication increases exponentially every year. Google is exceptionally good at this: several years ago, Google managed, using its recognition algorithms, to predict the H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak two weeks ahead of official sources. And if companies can do it, states and governments certainly can. Although governments across the world don’t like to talk too much about their intelligence gathering, a number of leaks in recent years have shone a light on some of their evil workings, the most obvious of these being the data disclosed by Edward Snowden.
“I don’t care, I don’t do anything illegal”
This is my favorite phrase. Aren’t you browsing the Web? You don’t mind publishing all your browsing history over the past 2 years? I’ve heard “I don’t have anything to hide” too many times and I have to tell you it’s absurd. Most people don’t realize what they are doing, just by being online. We all have secrets, and that’s normal. But you may not realize how much you want to keep private and how you might inadvertently give it away online.
I found the following fictional dialogue on Facebook some time ago, and I kept it to show to all persons who tell me “I don’t care”. Let’s see if you’ll not care after that:
B: “No sir, it’s Google’s pizza.”
A: “So it’s a wrong number? Sorry!”
B: “No sir, Google bought it.”
A: “OK. Take my order please.”
B: “Well sir, you want the usual?”
A: “The usual? You know me?”
B: “According to our caller ID data sheet, in the last 12 times, you ordered pizza with cheese, sausage, thick crust.”
A: “Yes, this is it…”
B: “May I suggest to you this time ricotta, arugula with dry tomato?”
A: “What? I hate vegetables.”
B: “Your cholesterol is not good, sir.”
A: “How do you know?”
B: “We crossed the number of your fixed line with your name, through the subscribers guide. We have the result of your blood tests for the last 7 years.”
A: “Okay, but I do not want this pizza! I already take medicine.”
B: “Excuse me, but you have not taken the medicine regularly, from our commercial database, 4 months ago, you only purchased a box with 30 cholesterol tablets at Drugsale Network.”
A: “I was out of money.”
B: “You didn’t seem to be out of money when you where on vacation in Spain, according to your Facebook photos.”
A: “I bought more from another drugstore.”
B: “It’s not showing on your credit card statement.”
A: “I paid in cash.”
B: “But you did not withdraw that much cash, according to your bank statement.”
A: “I have have other source of cash.”
B: “This is not showing as per you last Tax declaration, unless you bought them from undeclared income source.”
I guess that you started to feel like you’re under the microscope right now, huh? As you can see, it’s not necessarily about the fact that you are a person of interest. It’s about companies and governments tracking your every move and knowing everything that you do. I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with this. It’s like being naked the street.
How to protect yourself
Even if it’s impossible to stay anonymous, there are things that you can do to prevent from being spied on at every moment. Below are some things that you might want to keep private.
You might want to keep the date and place of birth, the names and ages of your parents and children, and your marital status among family and close friends. These things make it easy for somebody to hack into your accounts, steal your identity, or even blackmail you. And yet, you’ve probably revealed much of this information already on most websites when signing up.
Use Private Browsing as much as possible. Every website you visit, every search you make and every video you watch leaves a trace that leads back to you, revealing where you did it, on what computer and the browser you used. This is stored as history, cache, and cookies. Some parts are stored on the servers of search providers, advertisers, and other entities. Private Browsing mode won’t completely protect your online activity, but it’s a start. It’s extremely difficult to avoid online tracking, even with Private Browsing.
When you buy something online, the vendor keeps a record. This is also done for non-repudiation reasons (in case you do something evil). Your bank may know about all your transactions, too. Can you think of any purchase you might not want to be made public?
Unless you take deliberate steps to prevent it, the mere act of turning on a mobile phone or visiting a Web site on your computer can reveal your physical location, sometimes down to your street address. This information may be stored, too, such that your movements and online activity over time can be mapped out and that, in turn, can often suggest what you have been doing in all those locations, or even with whom you have been doing it. Do you mind that someone you don’t know can tell where you are now, and where you’ve been in the past?
Facebook posts and check-ins
Be careful what you share on Facebook and check the privacy settings. Imagine you are at a party and you had a bit too much to drink and someone posts photos with you and tags you. Even if you end up rejecting the tag, you are still marked! These profiles are used by employers to screen candidates for jobs. There are people that missed their one lifetime opportunities because of this. Other people were fired because of this.
Everywhere, privacy is under attack. This is why you should take care of yours. You may want to keep certain information from your employer but not your doctor; you may want to tell your spouse things that you wouldn’t tell your kids. The same goes with online privacy.
Even those who actively try to protect their own privacy are no longer safe from intrusion. Despite the existence of modern tools such as encryption, VPNs or TOR, online anonymity is quickly becoming a fictional concept.