|Courtesy Charis Tsevis/Flikr/Creative Commons 2.0|
It’s easy to say, if you don’t trust a site, don’t use it, but is this always realistic? We shop, bank, browse, do research, map trips, communicate with family and friends, play games and check the weather, all online. The author of A New York Times article on Google+ has pointed out that even though users might feel uncomfortable about Google’s data gathering, they have few options, given the company’s “sheer strength on the web.” Not only is our school committed to a variety of Google products, but search engines offering private searching are not yet serious competitors. Even with the Snowden PRISM revelations encouraging a shift to such products, DuckDuckGo’s worldwide searches totaled only 90 million a month compared to Google’s 30 billion in just the United States (Search Engine Land). Many consider Facebook to be indispensable. A Consumer Reports survey reports " . . . that people are treating Facebook more warily; 25 percent said they falsified information in their profiles to protect their identity, up from 10 percent two years ago." Yet they still participate, to the tune of 180 million users in the U.S.
Even if you limit yourself to sites that are trustworthy, the potential for a third party to form a fairly accurate picture of you using statistical analysis from a sampling of your information has been well-documented, including the Netflix contest exposé by the University of Texas several years ago. Government and industry are both constantly increasing their capacity to store huge amounts of data and technology. Experts are able to use this data to pinpoint (or de-anonymize) individuals through examination of their online activity and bits of revealing information (Sledge). I don’t know about you, but I am disturbed by the remarks of the Chief Technology Officer of the CIA, who says, "Since you can't connect dots you don't have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever." How can we not work to protect what privacy we have left?
Of course, there are other, more forthright strategies people use to help protect their privacy. Ghostery or other ad blockers interfere with tracking from websites, beacons, widgets, and cookies that are collecting user data. There are also “do not track” or private browsing options on the major browsers. However, a security technologist writing in CNN reports that private browsing or “do not track” may mean no more than that the user does not see browsing history or receive targeted advertising; collecting and saving data may continue. Ad blockers are limited by the data collectors that they have identified. In addiiton, Google and Microsoft are currently working on technologies that will replace the cookie and, presumably, other easily identifiable trackers (Scheier).
Finally, should we be trying to block the ads and ad tracking when this is how we are able to access sites “for free?” A HuffPost article I used in researching privacy contains the warning that when accessing the site, one agrees to the collection of cookies. Is giving up information to data brokers a reasonably fair trade? Or does the lack of transparency in tracking makes this an unequal relationship, with users always at a disadvantage (Singer)? Technology expert Bruce Scheier says, "Surveillance is the business model of the Internet." We users are routinely blocked from having effective control over our data.
As important as it is to be ethical online users, it is equally important to be secure. When using social networking or commercial sites, we should all think twice about sharing our gender, phone number, zip code, race/ethnicity, and birth date information. Pay attention when asked for information on forms and consider whether it is necessary to be accurate. Having complete privacy and security on the web may no longer be realistic goals, but we should do what we can to protect our information. No less a figure than the head of security for the British Cabinet advises citizens to be accurate only when using official or well-documented, safe sites (Wheeler).