Sunday

Privacy on the Internet, Seeking Anonymity

Many people don't see the point of trying to achieve privacy on the internet, - "I have nothing to hide" they might say. To those people I suspect they have never really thought of the enormous amount of personal information that is being collected about them online.  To retain this privacy, surfing anonymously is a prerequisite that most of us don't even come close to doing, and in some senses actively sacrifice online.

Information is power, sounds perhaps a little like a cliche, but it is an undeniable truth, information is also extremely dangerous. In the 19th Century, the Netherlands was a pretty civilized place to live compared to a lot of Europe. Information gathering was often used to enhance social rights and improve the lot of their citizens, for instance innocently gathering data on religious beliefs to protect against intolerance - there were comprehensive censuses carried out for entirely the best of intentions.

The result - a comprehensive set of information on all Dutch citizens was produced and unfortunately this information was eventually used by the Nazis during the holocaust to identify victims based on their religion. Information can be used in all sorts of ways, for good and for bad.

Of course the amount of information recorded on anyone who uses the internet, simply dwarfs what was available before. Every search query, every web site, every purchase in fact anything you have ever done online is potentially recorded somewhere. Imagine how much I could learn about you and your life if I simply has a list of every web site and search query you have typed in over the last year, and yes this information is recorded.

To illustrate, take the case of AOL Searcher No.4417749, in 2006 AOL released a database of 20 million search queries conducted by their users. The information was anonymised so that no personal details were released (although the company obviously had this data as all ISPs have) - each search record had a unique identifier though.

This is AOl searcher 4417749, who was actually tracked down just on the search queries she made by the New York Times.   Some of the search queries she made included "numb fingers", "60 single men" to "dog that urinates on everything".

But over the three months of the search records, the identity became more evident, - "landscapers in Lilburn, GA", “homes sold in shadow lake subdivision gwinnett county georgia.” and searching for surnames called Arnold.

A Times reporter tracked down Thelma Arnold who although shocked confirmed that those were indeed her search records.  Her response mirrored what perhaps we would all have felt

“My goodness, it’s my whole personal life,” she said. “I had no idea somebody was looking over my shoulder.”


There was a whole  lot more to learn about Thelma Arnold from hundreds of other searches for instance health issues - she searched on "nicotine dependency", "bipolar disorders" and "dry mouth".  We can see an insight into the real person on queries on the  "best time to visit Italy", "how to send money for Iraqi kids".   The list goes on, fortunately she wasn't suffering from many medical ailments but was searching to help friends who suffered from them - perhaps how information can easily become misinformation if taken at face value.  Kudos to her for allowing her identity to be released to highlight this issue you can read the full story on the New York Times report here


Remember this is just from a public released list of anonymous search queries, the people in power have much , much more comprehensive sources of information at their disposal.   If you look at the logs in your ISP you don't need to do any detective work, every search query, picture downloaded, article read is accompanied by your IP address, which is effectively your home address when your online.

The amount of information we are leaving behind is simply frightening, imagine the amount of data available in 10 years of surfing the internet, how many internet indiscretions have you in your online records. For  the less privacy minded add together the thousands of 'tweets', facebook messages, blog posts and comments, the total gets much bigger.

Privacy on the Internet simply doesn't exist by default, we are a society who are leaving a huge part of ourselves online accessible by virtually anyone.  If  you value your anonymity and privacy online, you need to do something to protect it, I do I use Identity Cloaker

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