My Online Privacy Concerns

I'm finally worried about privacy on the internet--normally, I go on and on about products that are made in China, the poor performance of traffic lights or the silliness of speed limits. I've spent the last two hours trying to carve out a little privacy online and I am now almost sure that I am going to fail. Today I learned of a project called Panopticlick (check it out. It is one click and inspired this entire post), which can probably tell who you are, even though you might not have cookies enabled, and even though you might have your browser set to "Private Browsing Mode, and even if you're using a proxy (If you want to see some other things about you, and you use Google, log in, click here, and have a look around).

A little over 200 years ago, an English philosopher named Jeremy Bentham came up with an idea for a prison called a Panopticon (Wikipedia) It is a bank of prison cells wrapped around in a circle with a slit-windowed guard tower in the center. The guard(s) in the tower can watch any of the prisoners, and so each prisoner does not know whether or not he is being monitored. After a while, the guards don't even need to be in the tower all the time--the prisoners police themselves.

Anyway, Panopticlick is a project by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to show how much information you give up when you visit a website--perhaps enough that the internet can identify your specific browser, based on the version of your browser, the fonts it has, your screen resolution, etc. It's pretty spooky stuff, and it means you don't know when you're being watched (does that remind you of CCTV's you see in grocery stores, street corners... How about the cameras that nearly everyone carries now just waiting to capture embarrassing or tragic moments).

Here's what I've changed...

Firefox extensions:
  • Ad-Block Plus- blocks nearly all ads online, which is nicer visually, and better for anonymity. Highly recommended even for non-privacy nuts.
  • Tor - a traffic-anonymizing plug-in for Firefox that trades security for anonymity
  • Better Privacy - Deletes Flash Cookies (Local Shared Objects), which are cookies that aren't deleted when you delete cookies
  • NoScript - Prohibits javascript from running unless you want it to. I don't know how well this is going to work but I'm going to give it a try.

Browsing habits:
  • Using duckduckgo.com rather than Google. Duckduck go doesn't store or leak (cool visual guide) your information (at least that's what they say)

I also don't like that Google Instant knows exactly what you're typing, even before you click submit (and could save your unsubmitted searches). That's a huge invasion of privacy.

Someone out there is gathering this colossal database of information about me, and it's valuable. At the very least, companies are going to dig deeper into my pockets by giving me really targeted advertising (at worst something will come back down the line to bite me for insurance, or legal reasons). If they're good enough at it, it could be bad. Here are some great products:

Cars - so cheap and appealing that people boat around in them until they are way overweight
Sriracha - tasty enough that you try it on non-asian cuisine and wind up ruining the flavors of whatever is being eaten
smart phones - so good people don't need to know how to use maps, and don't need to remember phone numbers or facts...
SecondLife/World of Warcraft - these games appeal to human instincts so heavily that people prefer the online world to real life

What if advertisers really start digging into my pockets and change my behavior as drastically as the products above change behavior? What if they figure out exactly how to target me by appealing to my basest desires? I won't be seeing Victoria's Secret and Noxema ads online, but my wallet will be rent asunder by ads for used 2-stroke KTMs and used Miata swaybar endlinks. For me, the ultimate advertising would be if a fourth column of Drudge report had a craigslist feed with sub-2k motorcycles/bikes/scooters for sale nearby. What would the ultimate advertising be for you?

Some great writing on the Panopticon (same link as the one way above)--this is exactly how internet usage seems to me after today.

1 comment:

Nico R said...

This was a good read Nick. Hope you are doing well.