Online Privacy

Author: Cody J., Software Engineer

When most people envision an engineer Privacy online can be difficult to achieve, at least, if you want full access to the Internet. Most websites track users for a variety of reasons, ranging from curiosity to ad placement. The most basic tracking techniques just look at where a visitor is located (based on the user's IP address), what type of operating system they use, and the browser type and resolution a visitor uses (useful when planning upgrades to a site).

Most website support themselves via advertising; the visitor "agrees" to see ads in exchange for free access to the site. However, a lot of people hate online ads due to the number that can  be found on websites, their annoying behavior (such as blinking text and animation), and the fact that ad servers can introduce malicious code onto visitors' computers.

Ad blocking is one way to help with online privacy. Essentially, ad blocking software looks for areas on a web page that are designated for advertising and prevents those areas from being displayed. They also look for communications to known advertising domains, e.g. doubleclick.net, and prevent the data transfer between the advertiser and the website.

The privacy aspect comes from preventing advertisers from tracking a user's surfing habits. Cookies, web bugs, and other software tools can be utilized to track users as they move from website to website. Over time, this  tracking can be used to create a useful profile of an individual, to the point of knowing when someone is pregnant and offering pregnancy-related coupons.

Most people are aware of the tracking that Google performs on people who use Google's services. Considering how many online services Google provides, it is nearly impossible to avoid Google when using the Internet. While you can opt-out of Google's tracking for many of the services, there are still ways for Google to track you.

Since Google is the most used search engine (to the point where "to Google" is now a verb), the easiest way to prevent your online activities being tracked is to use a search engine that doesn't record information about your searches. DuckDuckGo (DDG) is one such search engine. DDG doesn't collect or share personal information. This means that your searches not only are not tied to your IP or User Agent information,  but the search terms themselves aren't provided to other websites.

Obviously, for some people, this can be a vital concern when conducting online searches. If a person has a medical condition and searches online for more information, there is a possibility that the searches can be tied to that individual. Even if personally identifiable information (like name and address) is removed from the records, it is still possible to identify a person via metadata.

Another common Google service is Gmail. In case you didn't know it, Google scans all emails that move through Gmail for advertising and spam-detection purposes. This occurs even if only one person in an email chain is using Gmail. There are certain caveats to this, but, generally speaking, your email is scanned by a computer to help deliver relevant ads (relevant to the email's subject matter) to you.

Finally, you can "hide" a large portion of your online presence by using Tor. Tor stands for The Onion Router and is a protocol designed to mask yourself from online traffic analysis. Traffic analysis is simply identifying the source and destination IP addresses. Even something as simple as this information can cause problems, from price discrimination (like an Australian paying more for an online purchase) to safety issues (if someone is able to identify that you are connecting to a foreign agency's computer system).

Tor works by creating an indirect link between you and your destination site. A number of different relay points are set up, with each relay point only knowing the immediate connections it has; no relay knows the entire path. Each relay connection is encrypted, so no relay is able to trace these connections. In addition, after a connection has been terminated for 10 minutes, any subsequent connection uses a new route, so even if someone was looking, they wouldn't be able to link current actions to previous ones.

Tor is usable with a variety of tools, such as web browsing and instant messaging, but users have to be conscious of what they do on the Internet to avoid revealing themselves. Providing your name on a web form nullifies any anonymity you had. There are a number of weaknesses within Tor, but, overall, the protocol is useful for anyone wanting to have more online privacy.

To summarize, online privacy is an ongoing battle, which some people may care about more than others. There are a number of things that can be done to improve privacy, but it is a trade-off between the benefits of using the Internet and how much information is released.

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