Is There Any Way to Protect Your Information Online?

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“You know, I could continue to waste my time responding to your dipshit nonsense, but I actually work for a living.… This will be the last time you take a dump on any one of my feeds. You’re not wanted here. (Now there’s a line I’m sure you’ve heard before.)”

—January 26, 2017, 4:40 p.m.

That’s me talking. Or fuming. This took place almost two years ago, in the aftermath of Trump’s inauguration, when tempers flared and nerves were frayed. It was hardly my finest hour, and, frankly, I’d forgotten about it. But the Internet doesn’t forget.

The above excerpt is one of thousands of comments that make up my digital footprint on Facebook—a record of my “established adult life,” as the social media platform describes it. Even though I’m hardly a power user, the information held in trust by the social media giant is frighteningly complete: every post I’ve made, every comment I’ve dashed off, every thumbs-up I’ve given, every advertiser I’ve clicked on (and a bunch that I never even knew existed). At some point, I have allowed access to my personal address book, unwittingly giving up information on everyone from Lululemon founder Chip Wilson to 1980s heartthrob/crooner Gino Vannelli.

Even though I’m hardly a power user, the information held in trust by the social media giant is frighteningly complete: every post I’ve made, every comment I’ve dashed off, every thumbs-up I’ve given, every advertiser I’ve clicked on (and a bunch that I never even knew existed).

It’s not just Facebook, of course. From the search engines you use to the apps on your phone to your Internet service provider (ISP), your life online is subject to innumerable privacy breaches. “Large social media and search companies accumulate massive amounts of personal data about each of us,” says Michael Geist, a University of Ottawa law professor and Canada research chair of Internet and e-commerce law. Almost everything we do, notes Geist, from uploading photos to using mapping and search tools, leaves digital residue. “The information is all voluntarily provided. Yet the amount of data that is generated is very significant.”

So how do you avoid prying eyes and reclaim your privacy?

There is an obvious solution, of course: Stay off the Internet. But most of us don’t want to disengage; we want to participate—but without having to look over our shoulders (figuratively speaking) every time we decide to take a spin around the web. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to cloak yourself entirely while online. There are, however, ways to make yourself less visible.

First, always sign out of your social media accounts after each session; this way, it will be more difficult (but not impossible) to track your personally identifiable information while you roam. But even if you’re logged out, the company can still associate the data with your IP address and all the websites you’ve been to that contain Facebook code. Second, if you’re going to allow cookies to be set (some sites require this), make sure your browser settings only allow sites you’ve actually visited to place them. Using your browser’s stealth mode—Google Chrome’s Incognito Window, say, or Safari’s Private Window—also ensures that your history won’t be saved and that tracking cookies won’t follow you after your session ends. That said, odds are that your search engine (Google, in most cases) is still logging everything you do.

“Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you with personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising and spam and malware detection,” states Google’s policy. “This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

Google’s business model is predicated on collecting data and then providing access to it: every term you search, every video you watch, everything you buy. Even your Gmail account isn’t as private as you thought: “Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you with personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising and spam and malware detection,” states Google’s policy. “This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

A recent investigation by Associated Press found that Google services on Android devices and iPhones will store your location data even if your privacy settings say this isn’t happening. To prevent this, you have to “pause” the Location History setting and another setting called “Web and App Activity.” When both of these settings are paused, it prevents any of your activity from being saved to your account. If you only pause Location History and not the other, Google will still continue to track your movements.

So what else can you do?

You can try an alternative search engine like StartPage or DuckDuckGo; neither one claims to keep track of your travels or searches, and both can be accessed through their respective websites or easily added to your browsers, desktop or mobile devices, as extensions. (DuckDuckGo also gives a privacy grade to the sites you visit that’s based on how many trackers are lurking, whether the connection is secure and the extent of the site’s privacy policy.)

They’re not perfect—in terms of quantity, you’ll likely find more comprehensive results using Google—but for most general surfing applications, they’ll do what you need them to do. Another option (mainly for desktop users) is the Firefox-based Tor browser, which channels your searches through a worldwide network of servers, effectively bouncing your browsing trail around the Internet and making it very difficult to track your whereabouts. The downside? Much slower surfing.

The best easy-to-implement option for ensuring privacy is to use a virtual private network. VPNs conceal your location (and your browsing), even from your own ISP or cellular network (Bell, Rogers or Telus, to name the bigger players). Because your traffic is channelled through the VPN’s own servers, neither your ISP nor the sites you visit will know where you’re actually located, allowing you to surf (relatively) privately. (For those who use public Wi-Fi to, say, do their online banking in a café, using a VPN should be standard.)

In the past, some free VPNs have sold customer data, negating at least some of the advantages they’re meant to provide.

When it comes to choosing a VPN, there are several options—some that charge a monthly fee and others that don’t. As with most things in life, you often get what you pay for: In the past, some free VPNs have sold customer data, negating at least some of the advantages they’re meant to provide. (Note that some websites that use geo­blocking to restrict a service, like Netflix, to specific locations don’t play nice with some VPNs.)

How did we get here?

Underlying the issue of online privacy is a stark economic fact. The Internet is “free” in the same way that broadcast television has always been free: To access information and entertainment, you tacitly agree to be targeted by ads. The difference between the two media, however, is in degree. Where TV ads are basically like highway billboards, often indiscriminately vying for the attention of every driver on the road, Internet advertising is more like having someone rooting through your trash and discovering your credit card bills and then uncannily showing up at your front door with an offer to sell you something you want or need. For advertisers, the data collected by many websites (and, in some cases, ISPs) is gold. For consumers, it’s a Faustian bargain. The adage “If the product is free, then you are the product” applies.

For advertisers, the data collected by many websites (and, in some cases, ISPs) is gold. For consumers, it’s a Faustian bargain.

But does any of this matter? Is the commoditization of your data evil or merely exploitative? If you believe it’s the latter, then check out consumer-to-business companies like Datacoup and Datawallet that offer to pay you for what you’ve been giving away and allow you control over where your information goes.

It’s a start. If you’re the product, you might as well be the vendor, too.



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