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Privacy and the Internet

E-Crime Expert presented and it will be further presenting on this blog, a series of posts that is summarizing the risks that might occur of not having appropiate privacy settings when using the Internet and the electronic environment. 

Privacy and the Internet

Currently, Internet users are “monitorised” by service providers such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and Twitter, which claim to offer a better user experience. No doubt they offer it by knowing the user’s preferences and habits. This is not about just the user himself, but about these service providers making more money for themselves. By having set up users’ profiles, they can develop a target audience (sex, race, age, food, cars, books, etc) and sell it better to the advertisers. What does the user get in exchange? Personalized web searches, classifieds within his geographical area, automatic login into websites (if you log on to Yahoo you are logged on Linkedin as well or if you log on to Google you are logged on to everything Google offers for users such as Maps, Sites, Gmail, Docs, YouTube, etc).

How it works:

Someone moves, for example, temporarily from North America to The Netherlands and there his Yahoo homepage or Google homepage changes automatically from English to Dutch, which for example might not be that user’s preference as he is an English speaker. But this change occurs by default as Google or Yahoo identifies the IP address from where a user logs in. Someone could adjust the settings but next time when the browser is opened again, the user will be taken automatically to the same Dutch webpage. What does it mean? It means that these service providers always know where a user is geographically located.

Also, the user’s privacy is questionable, when the history of the user’s searches on Google is kept.

If someone starts typing the first letter of as search, some suggestions appear on the search-box based on the previous search history of that terminal. So, if a user is a medical doctor, and while using his work computer he starts typing for example “hand”, suggestions such as “handguns” could appear as he or someone else might have searched this topic before from that particular terminal, even for research purpose (such as handgun wounds). Imagine if his colleagues or patients,  see this search suggestion as “handguns”, etc, how damaging for his image could be. Also, more harmful could be when a child could see the same suggested searches on his parent’s terminal.

Online Transactions

Another example when privacy is vulnerable on the internet is when a user wants to buy something from an online store; the user logs in, and first he is presented with the options related to his previous purchases and shopping history on that particular online store. This could be useful, but a user should be able to decide and use his own judgment rather than being “told” what to read or buy. This again demonstrates how users are monitorised over the Internet. The users should be given the choice between competitive brands for a better an unbiased online experience. For example one shops for nike shoes and all the online options are related to nike based on his preferences. Why there is not given any option regarding Adidas shoes for example, in order to help the user make her decision by comparing similar and competing products? This is called behavioral advertising because the users are monitorized for their web browsing preferences in order to be able to sell them specific products or advertising based on their known preferences (web history).

The problem is that the users do not always know they are monitorized, and as a direct effect, their privacy is breached.

Now, regarding purchasing special products (i.e. wine, cigarettes) from online stores, will comply with the age requirements for buying these products. Once someone wants to buy these products which are subject to specific age requirements, he is required first to log in (this step does not necessarily confirm the user’s legal age) but when in comes to make the payment automatically the bank details “informs” about the user’s date of birth, address, etc, and access is granted or denied (based on the user’s age).

Selling alcohol and cigarettes to under age individual was regulated better using these “architectural” website regulatory measures (i.e. one cannot make online purchases without following the required steps due to the website’s code, or technical structure), than any existing legislation. Regardless of the advantages of restricting purchases to those of legal age, it also comes in a package with negative implications because the details of personal data and private data are stored by these service providers who could rent, sell, or lend this private information for commercial purposes. Its very rare for users to do anything on the Internet without being logged in, providing username and passwords, bank cards, location, or having recorded their search preferences.

Thus, there are not many other options available:

  • the user must comply with these rules, which are imposed by the structure and technical features of the provided services or
  • they leave the site because they cannot move any further.

The point of this article is that all this private information or personal preferences are stored by the service providers (in the name of a better user experience) and could be sold, rented or borrowed for marketing  and advertising purposes and commercial gain, which comes against the user’s privacy, security and data protection. Secondly, why should a user be told what to do, what to buy, what to read, what to search for, what language to use and how the weather is in a particular location when he could use his own judgment to find out all this information? Why should everyone be in the same “pot” and dealt with in the same way? In reality, the user’s experience moves slowly towards a mass behavioral control, where the service providers think and take decisions and keep the users’ personal data in the name of this “better user experience”. As explained above, this is more about business and making money for the service providers than how the user’s experience matters in reality.

Why it works:

Because these services are provided for free. Google’s search engine is free, Yahoo’s services are free, Facebook is free, Twitter is free, and this is what users are looking for: free services. It is not charity but a very intelligent business model put forward and used very efficiently by these service providers. To not be misunderstood: their services are great, useful and come in handy, but some distinction between how and when to use them should be made. Driving the users blindly towards these services would be wrong because:

  • the users do not have other choices
  • their private information and personal data could be vulnerable, stored and manipulated by the service providers
  • nowadays information is the equivalent of power.

Soon, after enough users are dependent on these services, they could require payment or for example and they will restrict usage to only those who log in with their driver’s license or ID, even for browsing the Internet. This could eventually turn into the best regulatory model or most efficient controlling model of the Internet. At some point (I hope I’m wrong), the user will either have to conform to the rules or they will have to discontinue using the service, which is not convenient as now almost everything is happening on the Internet.

How the user could help protect their privacy:

  • decide whether an unified account for bringing together all these services (email, video, music, pictures, searches) is required or not (i.e. Google and Yahoo). I will suggest not;
  • clear the cookies (tutorial here) of your browser as regularly as possible in order to remove this stored information regarding your user behavior and preferences.
  • Clear the web history (tutorial here) and the browser cache (tutorial here)
  • clear the search history (tutorial here)
  • be careful and skeptical regarding what personal information should be provided on Social Networks
  • be aware of these service providers’ illegitimate affiliates. For example, all services provided by Google are done through Google, they do not use intermediaries, so if someone claims to work in Google’s behalf in order to provide its services, that’s not true. Don’t provide them with any personal information or make any payment.
  • ultimately set you own Internet (browser) preferences and settings, by deactivating Locations, or Weather updates, or Maps, or anything that deals with your personal data, identification and your location. Do not allow these services providers to decide in your behalf, if you want to protect your privacy.

 Any questions can be submitted to:

dan@e-crimeexpert.com

Additional information can be found at: www.e-crimeexppert.com

Do you find useful this post? Do you find useful the tips? Did you think that all those services are genuinely for free?

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