Online and digital privacy denote the rights of a person to browse, upload, download or store data on the internet without any interference from a third party. We need to be aware of our activities on the internet and actively try to keep that information private. Posting pretty much anything on the internet can potentially and inadvertently turn out to be harmful to yourself and others. Once something is posted on the web, it can easily become permanent;  this includes comments on pictures, blogs on sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Search engines and other web bots scoop up this information and store it so that it can be later monetised. Thereafter, pretty much anyone can find it online. This may come back & be extremely harmful to an individual. Think of it as a text message to the world, once you send it, you cannot take it back! And you have just allowed many billions of people to read that text.

Vulnerability of Internet Privacy:

Nowadays, personal privacy is under threat with many companies keeping tabs on your internet activities. They use it primarily to display appropriate adverts based on your online activity and digital footprint. The moment you upload any data to social media sites or pay for something online you are taking a risk that someone with ill intentions is possibly listening. Very intimate information about an individual like political & religious views, sexual orientation, substance used, personality etc can be detected and leaked through the internet – even inadvertently. Different illegal acts like spreading of spyware or sending different forms of malicious viruses takes place over the internet every day affecting millions of innocent individuals. The list of vulnerabilities are endless and new ones pop up daily. I aim to discuss some of the various aspects here so you can start to become aware of how under attack we really are. It’s world war III, no guns involved just ones and zeros… it’s a digital war!

Threats to Privacy:

1. Internet Service Provider (ISP):

A user obtains internet access through an internet service provider (ISP). All data has to pass through the ISP’s hardware and software to transit to and from the user.  Therefore, an ISP can potentially observe a user’s activities on the internet. Although ISP’s are prevented from participating in these activities due to legal reasons, this might not always be the case.  Simple information like IP addresses allows ISP’s to track and model your online activity. They may then sell these activity models on to third parties for a profit; marketing and advertising companies love this kind of information. Collection of this information is a significant privacy concern for all internet users. As it stands, government authorities may request this sort of information from your ISP without your permission. Something to think about!

2. Social Networking Sites:

Participation in social networking sites has increased exponentially over the last few years. People share their personal information freely and publicly all the time through services like Facebook, Twitter etc.  Sharing personal information with both friends and strangers is a huge privacy concern. This may result in identity theft, blackmailing, or even physical stalking!  Many experts believe that social networks herald the end of privacy. With over a billion users, it is almost impossible for Facebook to ensure the privacy of all of its users, and with a history of privacy blunders, can you really trust them? In May this year, due to change in its privacy policy Facebook without consultation, it showed the power of a dictatorship and how exposed we really are.

In 2007 Facebook introduced an add system named “Beacon” that tracked actions of users and send them back to facebook friend’s network. At that moment many users revolted due to privacy threat. Later Mark Zuckerberg apologized and made Beacon an optional feature. Yet another example of how little control we have over our data.

Other social networking sites such as Twitter, Google Buzz also endured similar privacy issues.  Jeremy Mishkin, an attorney specialising in privacy law  stated that. “Social networks have forced users to rethink what privacy is in a world where public sharing of private lives has become common place.

3. Search Engines:

Having the capability to track a user’s searches, search engines are a huge threat to user privacy. Every computer may be uniquely identified online via its IP address and cookies. This information may eventually be linked directly to a users personal information. Search engines claim that they require this information to ensure protection against fraud. A search engine assigns each one of its user with a separate ID number. They often keep track of what the user is searching for on the web, what is being clicked, how long you are on a particular site. The list is endless. Some search engine companies retain this information for up to 90 days. Let me reiterate,  SOME search engines. I would suspect that most of them don’t. Google’s new privacy policy enables them to combine data from their many different services; and have been taken to court for doing so.

The web browser Google Chrome is considered to be one of the greatest threat to privacy. It can send back the keystrokes typed into its address bar, even when someone doesn’t bother to press enter (similarly on most other browsers which have followed suit). They call it auto suggest (Omnibox). Google already declared that they are going to store 2 percent information it gets this way. But it can be avoided by turning of auto suggestions. Granted Google Chrome is one of the safer browsers to use as it assists heavily with security, advising users of potentially malicious sites. I still use Google Chrome because of this.

4. Cookies:

In the field of internet privacy, cookies are a common concern. It’s a data stored in user’s device which assists automated access to websites. It can be used for user tracking through the usage of history data. Specially, third party tracking cookies are able to preserve long term record of users browsing history. Not many of us know about cookies. It has been around for a very long time, but only recently has it headlined as privacy concern. The introduction of new EU laws ensure users are notified of the use of cookies when visiting a website.


5. Others:

There are many services in the online industry which have faced the trauma of hacking. For instance, a few months ago Adobe announced that they had been hacked. 38 million users were affected by it. The hackers had access to their login details like username and password. But it was later discovered that over 152 million user accounts were compromised. See this ZDNET article to determine if you are one of the many that has been hacked. These types of hacking efforts are becoming more and more sophisticated and more common. It costs the worldwide economy billions of dollars every year. Many others have suffered the same fate as Adobe including Facebook, Yahoo, Hotmail, Sony… the list is long.

Further Potential Online Privacy Risks:

  • Malware:  It is the short form of malicious software. It penetrates in devices through the use of virus, Trojan or some other locally installed software.
  • Phishing: Trying to obtain sensitive information of a user like passwords, bank information through fraudulent means is known as phishing.
  • Pharming: Attempt of a hacker to redirect a known website to a completely different address is known as Pharming.
  • Social engineering: This is the act of manipulating people into doing something unethical.

Stay Safe & Protect Your Online Privacy

Latest studies have revealed that most internet users are now concerned about their privacy. No one likes strict monitoring over one’s personal life. To remain safe and enjoy online privacy, make sure you do the following:

  • Think before sharing personal information
  • Monitor what others post
  • Avoid traps from potential frauds
  • Use a phishing filter

Despite so many obstacles and threats to your online privacy, you can still stay safe and secured following just a few tips and tricks. Stay on constant vigilance and make sure you’re well aware of all the ways your online privacy might be threatened. It doesn’t hurt to be cautious.

Happy surfing!

Ishraq Rayeed Ahmed

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