I always feel like somebody’s watching me….(and I got no privacy)

By David Dietrich August 4, 2014

Much like Rockwell’s song in the early 80’s, online, I always feel like somebody’s watching me (online). Although I don’t think Rockwell was talking about online privacy back then, it is indeed a key issue now.

These days it is difficult to know how to use the web in a way that helps get you what you need, while maintaining appropriate levels of privacy. If you want to learn about this, read the recent report by the Federal Trade Commission on “Data Brokers”.  This profiles different data brokers and how they acquire, monetize, and share data. Whose data? Your data. My data. Everything you do, look at, purchase, tweet about, email, and Like. These actions leave data trails that can be combined into profiles that data brokers use to make money and sell to marketing firms to understand what products to offer you before you even realize you may want them.  This is surprisingly effective.

What can you do about it? Well, you can ask to have links to your past actions be removed, as has been requested in the EU 

Since I’ve spent several posts talking about privacy risks, I will now share some ways to improve your privacy online. The first thing to realize is changing your privacy online requires a change in your usage behavior. Here are a few ways to try and do this.

Find out How Unique your Browser Is.  In casual parlance, many people will comment on things being a “very unique” idea or product. To my ears, this always sounds strange, as uniqueness is generally a binary state. Either you are unique or you are not. Or are you? In the case of browser data and identification, you actually can be somewhat unique or identifiable, and there are gradations of uniqueness. In this context, it refers to the degree to which your browser can be uniquely identified. One way to test this is by using Panopticlick,which tests your browser to see how unique it is based on the information it will share with sites it visits. In this scenario, information that your computer shares while on the web contributes bits of entropy, such as the name, operating system and precise version number of the browser, which can be used to identify you via the uniqueness of this information.

Try it here, and it will test you on the spot if you wish.

Another option is to install browser add-ons that tell you who is trying to share and use the browser cookies without your knowledge. Popular tools in this area include Ghostery, which limits cookie sharing based on your choices, and Collusion , which provides a mapping of how cookies are being disseminated without your knowledge when you visit certain sites.

Lastly, there is the option to use anonymous browsers.  DuckDuckGo is one choice. Unlike using Google or Yahoo, which will store search history, provide search assist, auto-complete, and unique hits based on your unique profile and history, DDG does not store this information and therefore provides the same search results to a given search query for everyone. This makes it more anonymous than a regular browser, but you trade some convenience. The next step is ToR (the onion router), a private browser that received a lot of attention during the NSA Snowden event a year ago. ToR allows you to browse anonymously in a confined web relay pattern, thus intermediating your browsing habits, location, and history from regular browsers. Of course, now that ToR has received some attention, it is being used by more and more people (citizens, lawmakers, and law breakers …), which can affect its speed.

These are not the only solutions, but hopefully these provide some ideas for improving your privacy online and learning about your own browsing habits. A strange thing about using the web is many people use a computer in a quiet office, and thus have a false sense of security. In a physical world, they operate alone, at a desk, in a quiet place. Meanwhile, online you are connected to millions of other machines, people, and trackers, making a strange dichotomy between the physical realm and your online behavior. Don’t be fooled by the quiet and solitude while you browse the web, instead pay attention to what you do online.

Aware that many readers work with data, big or small, in future posts I will share points of view regarding data anonymization and de-anonymization, since data sharing is an issue companies will face as they try to become more data science-driven.

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3 thoughts on “I always feel like somebody’s watching me….(and I got no privacy)

  1. Great post – I currently use DuckDuckGo and a cookie tracker on my computer at home, and will check out the other options listed here.

  2. Thanks Caroline, glad you enjoyed the post. I find many people still forget about the digital footprints being left all over the web — despite many articles about it.

    • Based on the privacy study that EMC put out a few months back, yes, there is a gap between people’s desire to take advantage of online resources, and the level of action they take to protect themselves from the risks involved. Being a digital consumer is so convenient that I think it’s too easy to forget all of the work that goes into making it possible. Companies face a challenge in truly engaging customers in long-term relationships.