Internet Privacy 101

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“I think the government made Facebook…in an attempt to make privacy uncool. …I think that’s true, because, think about it: they don’t have to tap our phones, or survey us, when we just yield to them EVERYTHING! Just at home – ‘Home address? That’s a little weird – okaaay! Phone number? That’s a little private – suuure! Photos? Photos of everyone I know…? Here, let me tag those for you.”

– Pete Holmes, comedian

Privacy is becoming a greater and greater concern in the digital age. As more of our lives moves into the realm of cyberspace, we put ourselves, our information, and our identities at more risk. The Internet is still largely unregulated, so there are a lot of legal gray areas determining how much of your right to privacy extends to information on the web. If you don’t protect your information, ‘they’ could get it – criminal scammers, government agents, corporate spies, marketing executives… or someone right behind you!

(In true Facebook tradition, ‘like’ this post if you looked.)

Spyware and malware are, of course, a problem. The operators of this nasty software aren’t going to let the law stop them from getting at your personal info, for shady marketing purposes or worse. There are anti-malware programs to take care of this, my favorite being Spybot Search & Destroy, which is available freely, but there are also paid options for Internet privacy & security.

It’s also no secret that virus peddlers aren’t the only ones after your information, and that companies track the purchases and habits of their customers for marketing purposes. Most people know this and don’t have much of a problem with the idea, but the extent to which corporations track the habits of their customers is awe inspiring. For example, if you become pregnant, Target can find out before you tell anyone.

One of the biggest data miners out there is Google, which collects loads and loads of information across its many services. This is more out of a fierce obsession with mining data for innovations than anything – most of this information is used to improve its products. Google (as a rule) doesn’t share this information with third parties, but knowing that such a huge chunk of your life is on a database somewhere hundreds of miles away and out of your control can be unsettling.

Even if you are of the type to trust private corporations to do the right thing, but distrust government oversight and surveillance, you’re not out of the woods yet – law enforcement and government agencies often make requests of corporations for the information they collect, which often hand it over without complaint; no warrant or official order is required. The only way to ensure your data and personal information are away from prying eyes is not to share it to begin with. That, however, is almost impossible.

Though most companies hand over information without an official warrant, the law only requires them to give it up if a warrant is issued. However, there is no law requiring that companies have to request this information in the first place, and no laws against circumventing or preventing the collection process. There are a number of organizations that take advantage of this, luckily for you and your paranoia!

Startpage.com is a web page designed to allow you to access Google search results while anonymizing your information. You search the most private or embarrassing terms, and nobody will have to know you spent an hour researching “giraffe herpes”. If you prefer a search engine that’s built from the ground up for privacy, Duckduckgo.com is a sleek new startup that puts customer protection first. (Check their website for tons more information on Internet privacy and security!)

But there’s still one last thing to consider – your ISP. Everything you do on the Internet goes through them, and every ISP collects this information and holds onto it for an undisclosed amount of time (the only ISP I’ve heard of to disclose the amount of time is Cox Communications, who says they hold onto this data for six months). A new ISP, provided by the Calyx Institute, is in the works, pledging to render its customers completely immune to surveillance, but that’s still quite a long ways off – If complete and total anonymity is that important to you, though, there’s a way to protect yourself completely – a free network protocol called Tor.

Tor (originally short for “The Onion Router”) is a method of protecting all the data that goes in or out of your machine by wrapping it in several layers of encryption and sending it on a random path through multiple Tor-using computers, all of which provide an additional layer of encryption. None of these nodes can access the scrambled information – the only ones who can are you and the system you are communicating with.

A favorite of human rights activists in heavily censored and regulated countries, Tor is a valuable tool for Internet privacy and freedom, though it’s not without its drawbacks – running a Tor exit node may allow some pretty questionable stuff through your data stream, and while this can’t implicate you for any kind of crime, you may want to avoid the hassle and stress of getting contacted by the authorities. Connection speeds with Tor are also noticeably slower due to the encryption process and the more limited network of Tor-compatible computers – it really only has use for those with a strong desire or legitimate need for complete Internet privacy (I don’t even use it, myself, and I wrote this whole article).

If you want to avoid getting tracked at every turn as you live out your new life on the web, I hope this article has given you the tools to arm yourself against the rapidly opening eyes of data miners. I wish you good luck and bookend this article with a quote from another comedian:

“I can’t stand people who defend [internet surveillance] by saying, ‘Hey, buddy! If you got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about!’ I’ll be honest with you folks: I’ve got nothing to hide, but… I’ve got a few things I’m ashamed of.”

– Marc Maron

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