The Truth About Internet Privacy

The truth is it's becoming close to impossible to have true privacy while using the internet. At least not without doing a lot of metaphorical tip-toeing and fingerprint wiping usually reserved for those with extreme levels of paranoia, criminals or highly sophisticated netizens accessing things that they don't want others to know about (i.e. porn, torrents, hackers). There are ways to be completely anonymous online, VPN's (Virtual Private Networks), encrypted web browsing, and TOR are some of the most common tools used to hide digital footprints but they're far from user-friendly and they make your web browsing experience painfully slow and less functional but generally untraceable. However most people don't use the internet in this way and wouldn't want to. Most of us now have Facebook accounts, use Google, Yahoo or Bing and allow cookies to track our every move on the web because it makes our lives easier. But what exactly are we giving up? Who is "tracking" us, what do they know and why are they doing it? Lets start with clearing up the technical jargon.

Tracking

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The term "tracking" is used a lot when describing websites or web browsers that collect certain information about your web usage or keeps track of what sites you've visited. It's sometimes used in the media to infer some type of devious intent on behalf of the website or company that's doing the tracking. As if there is someone on the internet personally stalking you. That is not the case. These tiny files, collectively called "cookies" are small pieces of data sent from a website and stored in a users browser. The next time you visit a previously viewed webpage, the cookie remembers what pages you've visited and which links you've clicked. In turn this provides the website owner with data that helps determine if you're a new visitor, returning, as well as other info. They've been around since the early days of the internet but are becoming more sophisticated and provide diferent functions. Authentication cookies are used to figure out if you've been previously signed in to a website, which can keep you signed in when you return. There are also third-party tracking cookies, like the ones used by Facebook to track users across multiple websites that have come under intense scrutiny as of late. The Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-W.Va) who proposed a "Do-Not-Track" Bill for Online Advertising.

The bill wants to make web browsers provide users the capabilities to turn off tracking in the browser. Which is great, but the hyperbolic language being used is more fear mongering than informing. If people truly don't want targeted ads they should have an easy way to disable them (most browsers already support disabling cookies). As the technology of targeted advertising improves, every user will become that more valuable, therefore there should be watch dogs that make sure everyone is playing by the rules.

So what exactly is "Tracking"? The term itself sounds insidious but in actuality it's a tool for advertisers like Google, Amazon and others to help guess what your interest are based on the sites you visit. They use the links you click on to figure out your likes in order to properly target advertising that you may deem useful. Nobody likes getting advertised to, but if you're on the internet (or almost anywhere else these days) you will see ads, constantly. On TV, billboards, in apps, in web mail, on your favorite websites, it's a part of everday life and what pays the bills. The biggest problem with targeted advertising is that it's just doesn't work very well. For example, if I go to Amazon and search for running shoes and then purchase a pair, when I go to another website I will still get advertisements for those shoes, the ones I just bought. It's not perfect, but it's far better than getting ads for cat food when I don't own any cats, or baby clothing and I don't have any kids. 

Everybody Hates Facebook

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Over the past few years Facebook has been the poster boy for privacy concerns on the internet. It seems every year there is a story about Facebook doing something weird with peoples data or their privacy settings/policy. The criticism isn't unwarranted in some respects. Facebook has been cagey at best about what they're doing with users data, what is being read and shared to 3rd party companies and how to make particular things private. If you aren't a frequent user of Facebook their settings menu can look like a labyrinth of buttons, tabs and boxes. Who the hell wants to be bothered learning how to work all of this crap? All I wanted was to not be invited to those stupid social games and now 20 minutes later I'm still not sure if I've disabled them or not. Ugh. The flip side of that argument is nobody is forcing you to use Facebook. They are a business that provides a "free" service to it's users. If you accept the terms and conditions upon registering on Facebook (which couldn't be more convoluted admittedly) then you are consenting to have what you publicly share on Facebook, used by Facebook to fund the service.

The problem is not only with Facebook but with many other "free" online services is that their intentions are left purposely muddled so consumers are left confused to what is actually going on when it comes to how their data is being used. This approach is anti-consumer and could potentially backfire on the companies that continue this practice. Google however seems to be bucking the trend and has recently created an area where their users can see exactly what each service is doing and block or erase data that has been stored. When a company isn't being transparent, their users are susceptible to rumors, hearsay, and urban legends that are usually worse than what the motives of the company actually are. Next week Facebook users will be able to vote on changes to its Data Use Policy and Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. The vote will decided from now on if Facebook users will vote on future changes or not. Of course in the fine print, Facebook says the vote is only binding if at least 30% of registered users vote, which is highly unlikely. (Roughly 300 Million people)

Google, Don't Be (so) Evil

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When Google was first founded their motto was "Don't Be Evil". It referred to keeping ads out of their search results, or keeping the search results pure of monetary influence. A noble gesture, but as the internet behemoth has grown larger and larger some are questioning if they're still living up to the pithy yet lofty pledge. If you're an active internet user, there is a good chance Google knows more about you than your spouse or family members. Hell, Google may know more about you than yourself! Depending on how much you're entrenched in the Google ecosystem they know the things you've searched for, discussed in your emails (yes, Google reads your Gmail), where you travel to (Google Maps), and they know your daily location if you have an Android phone. If you have a Youtube account they even know how many cat videos you've watched and an infinite amount more details if you actively use Google+.

All of this data is being stored at large data centers located all over the world. Scared yet? Well don't be. At least not because they read your emails. When I say "being read" the first thing that may come to mind is Google employees giggling at racy emails as they come in, but that's not how it works. Gmail isn't read by Google employees or by humans at all for that matter. It's all done algorithmically, by computers that scan the text in your emails looking for keywords that it can match advertising against and used in a few other Gmail features. Try typing an address in an email thread, you'll notice a link to Google Maps may appear to the right of your email. You may also notice if you mention roses in an email there may be an ad for flowers in the top section of Gmail the next time that thread is opened (where ads are located). That's how those "cool" little features get there, by "reading" your mail. All of this is done anonymously without you, the person, ever being identified. Of course as artificial intelligence increases the value of this data will increase. Google's predictive little helper "Google Now" on the latest version of Android learns your habits and likes and predicts information to show you that may be helpful. Drive a certain route to work every morning to work? Google Now will provide an alternate route if their is construction or heavy traffic without you asking. These type of services are just the tipping point of what can happen once companies began to leverage the data it knows about you with the technology you use daily. Of course with all benefits the likely hood of someone misusing this valuable data increases.

Google is essentially a 21st Century advertising company. They use their team of brilliant software engineers to develop software driven technology using data gathered by using their services. Their enormous success in advertising allows them to experiment in lots of different areas. Currently Google has been working on a few key emerging technologies such as driver-less cars and wearable technology. Make no mistake, every new area they create products for is way to gather information that eventually benefits Google's bottom line.

Given the massive amount of information Google has and will continue to gather on their users, there is an ever increasing role of responsibility being placed on them to protect and not misuse this data. The onus is not only on Google, but the user as well to monitor what and how information is gathered about our lives and habits and how it's being used. Privacy advocates are increasingly worried about how this data is used and who has access to it, including the U.S. Government and law enforcement. There are no shortage of conspiracies online that link the C.I.A. with Google

We get lots of incredibly useful, free services (Google Search, Gmail, GDrive, Google Maps etc.) in exchange for anonymously targeted ads. No harm. Unless that information is jeopardized or willfully given to governments or some nefarious organization I will cautiously continue to use their services and products. I think anonymously collecting data could bring unimaginable value to our lives. Not only on a day to day basis but could have rippling effects in the medical, social science, and scientific fields (read below). Google has an invested interest in keeping our data secure and our trust intact. If that trust and good will is damaged, so will Google's business model.

Big Data Is Big Business

We're at the precipice of a new analytic revolution of what is being called "Big Data". It's the collection and analysis of the large amounts of digital data that is being generated across the world. Every day, 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created. There are so many sensors, emails, tweets, post, transactions, pictures and videos taken around the globe daily that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. Almost everything these days outputs some type of signal or information that can be read. Businesses, researchers and others can use information, data points and signals to not only analyze individual behaviors but entire communities or societal trends and habits that could be used to better understand human behavior, the environment, and everything around us. It's a gold mine that businesses are scurrying to find out how to best harness and interpret the massive amounts of data becoming available. In the near future your doctor could have access to certain data from your mobile device and home that could help them diagnose or even predict illnesses based on your lifestyle and environment. Of course privacy must remain paramount when discussing the use of personal information and as always the laws will have to catch up with the rate technology is progressing. The chance of this information being used for discrimination, extortion, or any other devious thing you can think of is high, but that's almost always the case when humans discover new technologies. As technology continues to progress we'll only continue to create more "signals" that companies will want to collect. We need to realize the value in our data, be aware of when and how we give it out and to whom.

The Dark Side Of Big Data

While there a plenty of positive effects that can come from Big Data, the NSA has seemed to have already jumped the shark and are reportedly building a massive spy center in Utah according to numerous reports. According to Wired Magazine, the $2 Billion heavily fortified facility will be able to read and analyze "private email, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases and other digital “pocket litter.”" This gigantic automated, digital spying machine's goal is to sniff out "terrorist" and to thwart possible attacks and other criminal behavior. But according to an official familiar with the top-secret project, "Everybody's a target; everybody with communication is a target". This type of broad, baseless information gathering makes what Google's doing seem almost like child's play. If you're worried about Google "spying" on you, what this Government funded spy center is reportedly capable of should make you down right irate. A lot of people were shocked when the news of how easy it was for General Petraeus's (head of the C.I.A.) email to be accessed and read by the FBI, Americans should no longer have any false pretense of privacy on the  web. The only safe bet is to assume everything put on the internet has the chance of being seen by someone other than the person(s) you intend seeing it. It's a brave new world.