Most of us like to think about the Internet as the last remaining place where we can be truly free. For many, the Wold Wide Web is a realm where you can find any information that you want, discover people with similar interests, stay connected to your close ones and so on while doing it all away from prying eyes. However, despite of all the privacy agreements and anonymity tools that we hind behind, privacy is still more of a concept than an actual reality.
Why do I care so much about privacy? It's my right. If you think that only people who are doing something illegal have a reason to stay hidden then you are wrong. What about those countries that still exercise censorship? Don't those people deserve at least one place where they can speak their mind and feel free? But let's not go to such "exotic notions" and stay closer to home. I'm pretty sure that under 1% of the companies which have access to data that breaks our rights to privacy can vouch for the good intentions of every employee on their payroll. Furthermore, absolutely everyone has something to hide. I'm sure nobody would feel totally comfortable around someone who can read their minds, so then why should it be any different when it comes to the Internet?
First off, there are a few terms you need to be familiar with before we go any further into the subject. ISP is short for Internet Service Provider, which represents the companies that provide us with access to the Internet. An IP address is a unique identifier that designates a computer accessing the web. Cookies are small programs which will record your settings, preferences and activity on a website and send the data to the server whenever you go back to it.
What comprises your Internet privacy? Well, pretty much everything. I know it seems like an exaggeration, but I'll just give you a few facts and allow you to draw your own conclusions.
- Internet providers keep detailed logs about every page that you visit, and they will very rarely reveal the amount of time that this (more or less sensitive) data will be stored.
- Search engines save your exact queries along with a lot of other data such as your IP, time stamp, the browser that you used, etc. In case you were wondering how long this information is being stored I can give you the information about the three major players in this market: Yahoo - 18 months, Google - 9 months, and Bing - 6 months.
- Most of the websites that you visit will track your activities through cookies and usually obtain a lot more information about your browsing habits than just your preferences on the site in question.
- Mobile apps will most likely track, store and send data like locations, calls, contacts, etc. When a PIM does that you can think it's OK, but when a flashlight application monitors this kind of information you start to wonder.
- Your emails can be saved on every server they go through. This means that your employer, Internet provider and so on can see the contents of your emails. Furthermore, Google and most other e-mail services scan the contents of each email that is stored or passes through their servers as part of their anti-spam techniques.
- Instant messaging services are not safe either. Just like with the e-mails, every instant message that you send can be saved on the servers that it passes through. Moreover, the other person(s) in the conversation can save records (logs) of your chats.
- Despite the privacy settings, social networking websites can't guarantee that 3rd parties won't have access to the data that you post. That's besides the fact that they will generally track your web activity for advertising purposes.
These are just some of the major factors that make me think twice whenever someone mentions the term "privacy" in regards to the Internet. As if that's not enough, most of these tracking techniques require effort and can be countered, so companies are now focusing on a new method called "fingerprinting". By gathering information about your computer (clock setting, fonts, installed software, etc.) they will identify your computer and assign it a unique tag (fingerprint) in order to easily trace its future Internet activity. Based on the same principle, "canvass fingerprinting" will command your browser to draw a hidden image and as each computer will depict it just a little bit differently, they will identify your PC with the help of that drawing. Even more, a technique called "householding" will fingerprint your PC, verify your IP and then identify all the computers/devices in your house that you use to surf the Internet. The sad part is that these tracking methods are invisible and so far there is no way to stop them, so they will most likely replace the traditional ones.
If you're keen on protecting your Internet anonymity, here are a few things you can do. Although in a very few cases they will actually offer complete protection, it's still worth trying out so that you can at least stay safe from "random" tracking.
- Don't use your search engine's e-mail client. If you do that, your searches can be easily connected to your email account so you will basically offer complete information about who you are and your browsing habits. Moreover, avoid installing search engine toolbars, as they will more than likely collect data about your Internet surfing routine.
- Use DNT. Most major web browsers have a "Do Not Track" option that can be enabled. Sadly, in order for this feature to work the website that you visit must agree to it as well, and most of them refuse because it threatens their advertising revenues.
- Use search engines that actually offer privacy. Websites like Startpage or DuckDuckGo are search engines that do not store any information about you. They will anonymously submit your query to Google and retrieve your results without any effect on your anonymity.
- Cloud storage isn't a reliable solution. The owners of cloud servers will most likely hand over your information to interested parties quicker than you would think. Furthermore, in most cases when something goes wrong and your private data is lost or compromised you have no legal recourse as their contracts usually make you responsible for the data stored on their servers.
- Use a VPN. Virtual Private Networks will protect your identity and secure your data traffic by simulating private networks on the Internet. For this purpose I recommend applications like Hotspot Shield or CyberGhost VPN. Even more, you can use web-based proxies like Hide My Ass or Anonymouse which will hide your IP behind private servers.
- Tor is a god. Though a bit misspelled and with an onion logo instead of a hammer, Tor is really a god when it comes to Internet anonymity. The Onion Router is a free service that directs your Internet traffic through a worldwide web of relays, encrypting the data as it goes, thus making your location virtually untraceable. Although there have been numerous attempts to crack this network, only the NSA managed to trace Tor users and that only happened because they exploited vulnerabilities in the browser and not the network itself. The Russian government even offered a $100,000 prize to any Russian citizen who can crack Tor.
As far as I'm concerned, I believe that Internet privacy only exists as long as no one with the necessary skills has any good reason to track you. Although it requires a lot of effort, there are too many ways to monitor a computer for anyone to be completely safe, so it will probably happen, no matter what countermeasures you use.