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True or false: are your online activities private and anonymous?
The correct answer is: False.
Almost everything you do online – whether it’s searching for information, reading a news article, shopping for a gift or downloading music – is recorded. As you move through cyberspace you leave a trail of digital data in your wake. This trail, often referred to as a clickstream, contains a revealing record of your online activities.
How It Works
When you’re online, your computer, known as a client, requests information from a remote computer, known as a server. To do this, you click a link. This instructs the server to send you the information you requested. Think of all the clicking you do as you surf the Web. Although it may seem insignificant, to some people, your clickstream has great value.
Understanding site visitor activity helps websites better meet their visitors needs. By keeping an eye on how visitors use the site, website designers can make the sites better.
Many sites also store information about who you are. For instance, if you register with a website, the site can identify who you are each time you visit. Even without registering, if you have visited the site before, many sites place small pieces of information about you and your visiting history, called cookies, on your computer. The next time you visit, the site will check for these cookies, so it can keep your experience consistent each time you come back. As soon as the site identifies you, it will customize your settings and preferences to the ones you chose on your last visit, or it may provide content and ads tailored to the interests you’ve shown previously.
Let’s say you play online poker. Would you want your spouse to know about it? Or suppose you use Yahoo! or Google to search for information about cancer treatments. Would you want your health insurer to learn about it? Maybe not.
Websites are not the only ones who track information about you. Web publishers only have user data from their own sites, but your ISP (Internet Service Provider) has a complete record of every click you make online. Your ISP should be respecting your privacy and not monitoring your every click; however, they may compile user information into anonymous logs and sell it to other companies who use it to make marketing decisions, research trends, etc. Don’t worry, those companies cannot link any of the data they receive back to you. On the other hand, your ISP is required to provide your Internet history if requested by law enforcement with an appropriate warrant. And there have been many instances of government agencies requesting and receiving this information about individuals in the name of national security.
Record your searches, the sites you visit, files you download, your IM sessions, your purchases, visits to Facebook and all other online activity for a few days. Now analyze this data to see what it reveals about you.
There is constant debate over who should have the ability to see this information and whether security trumps privacy. Regardless of your stance, you should assume that nothing you do online will go completely unnoticed. Even if your ISP has strict privacy policies in place, there’s no guarantee your information won’t be viewed by someone. In the wrong hands, this clickstream data poses a serious threat to your privacy.
Once all these bits of data are pieced together, a picture of you emerges, one that you may not want to share with the rest of the world. Even though you may be a law abiding citizen, some details of your online activity can be embarrassing, or worse, it may be misinterpreted. For instance, what if you are doing research about alcoholism? How might your employer interpret this? What if you are researching a report on terrorist organizations? Would you want law enforcement agencies to know about it?
As you can see, in a perfect world, you should be the master of your clickstream. Your trail of digital data should be as private as your telephone conversations, mail and other communications. Unfortunately, there has been a steady erosion of the privacy of online activities. The U.S. government has subpoenaed search records from AOL, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo! A number of data-mining companies now trade in personal information. The purpose of this article is not to make you paranoid, only to make you aware of the current situation and its implications.
Concealing Your Clickstream
If you have privacy concerns, you can limit the amount of information collected about you.
- If you’re using Microsoft Internet Explorer, under the Tools menu, select Internet Options. Now click the Privacy tab and then select the Medium setting to block third party cookies that transmit personally identifiable information without your consent.
- In Microsoft Edge, go to the Settings menu and choose “View advanced settings.” Scroll down to the Cookies option and select what type of cookies you want to block.
- With Mozilla Firefox, under the Tools menu, select Options. Now click the Privacy tab and check “Tell sites that I do not want to be tracked” box.
- In Google Chrome go to the Settings menus and click on “Show advanced settings.” In the Privacy section, you can customize cookie behavior under “Content Settings.”
If you do block all cookies, you can expect the websites that depend on them to perform poorly.
Keep in mind, though, that limiting cookies and dumping your search history will not prevent your ISP from having a complete record of your Internet activity. There are special programs you can utilize to mask your Internet browsing, even from them. Programs like the Tor Browser allow you to surf anonymously, even from your ISP, by routing your information through a series of volunteer servers, making it very difficult to trace back to your IP address. Tor has developed a reputation for illicit activity, as mentioned in our article on Mining the Deep Web, but it was originally designed and continues to be used to improve privacy and security. Tor probably won’t keep the NSA from tracking you down, but it can be a useful tool for protecting your privacy from your ISP and other prying eyes.