What do we mean by internet privacy?
Internet Privacy is about the collection of personal data across various electronic devices and websites. This information can be split into two distinct categories: information that can identify you, and information that cannot. The former group is basically any information that is collected that can be used to identify a person specifically (perhaps the vast majority of data now collected). Non personally identifiable information is used, for example, by websites to decide how best to present their design to the most viewers.
So, how do companies actually track you online? Some websites want to save a cookie on your computer which informs them of your past browsing habits on that site. This can be helpful at times, such as when you go back to a website and you don't have to log in every time.
Some larger sites, like Google, will save all kinds of things (though you can turn lots of it off), especially since they offer so many products through which they can see what you're doing. By using these products, you're giving a profile of your activities to the company that owns the products, and they save this data in order to display advertising directly relevant to you.
Social media takes all of this a step further. On sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, not only are you giving out the standard info you would when you make an account, but most users voluntarily post all kinds of information about their specific interests. They can build their profile on you from content in your posts, the sites you link and the pages you follow in order to provide very specific targeted ads.
Why do they collect all of this info?
Online retailers will keep track of everything you buy, but I think most people would expect that. Most of them will also pay attention to everything that you looked at while you were visiting the site, including times when you go there but don't buy anything. This doesn't necessarily benefit end users (unless you're a huge fan of targeted advertising), but it's gold for the retailers. By looking at yours, and everyone else's habits on their site, they can charge more for advertising or possibly give preferential treatment to certain products or sites.
(Check out our discussion on Internet Privacy and Net Neutrality)
Even if someone isn't selling a product directly to you, sites that are frequently used, like Google, will give the same preferential treatment to the highest bidder. Have you ever noticed how on many google searches, somewhere on the first page are a couple of ads that look just like the rest of the links? It might be a sidebar, or it could be colorful and very tempting to click on - after all, companies pay big bucks to put those links there.
There is a trade-off associated with all of this. The products that you can use for free are numerous on the internet, and you are exchanging ads and your private data for use of these products. I suppose that would mean they're not truly free, but they don't cost money. There's nothing wrong with this if it's made plain and clear up front. The problem is that there are still too many people who don't know what they're giving up in order to use things for "free".
We see that this information has been used for advertising and creating a digital profile of someone, but how do retailers actually use it. One company that makes this possible is called Acxiom, a giant company that most people have never heard of. They collect and sell data on individuals for marketing purposes, in categories (they call them "elements") like your net worth, are you a heavy Facebook user, or are you in the market for a new Japanese luxury car. This can get even more personal, including: how you get your medical insurance, if you've ever written a letter to a politician, your age, race and gender. Check out this New York Times article to learn a lot more than I can teach you about this data collecting giant.
On a much smaller scale, we here at drinkfive look at some data from the visitors to our site. We're able to glean some basic information from people, such as what browser they're using, how big their screen is (so the site can display properly) and how long they spend on the site. This is all information that has no monetary value to us, but can help us make our site better.
We can take it a step further and look at Google Analytics (remember all those apps I mentioned earlier - they definitely can prove useful) for our site. This will tell us the country of origin (hello to the 29 Australians who accessed our site in the last month), how people are getting to our site and a myriad of other stats. We can take this information and use it to make our site better and the casual browser doesn't need to give up any real personal info.
So what, if any, protections are there?
There's not a whole lot in place when it comes to private companies collecting public info. Yes, companies like Acxiom are building their database entirely on publicly available records. However, the problem is that most people don't even know they're on a list and it's notoriously hard to even find out what information they have on you, and even harder to get removed from the list. For now, there's not much regulating a private company collecting and selling public information to other companies. To me, it's scary how good they've gotten at it, how intrusive it's become and how nobody wants to do anything about it.
First Amendment, protecting our right to free speech, expression and freedom of the press. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, and that probable cause is required for a warrant that would violate that right. One might think those rights are being infringed upon if the government is spying on you, as Edward Snowden revealed.In a broader sense, we (Americans) are covered by the
Edward Snowden was a government employee and contractor who collected (and subsequently leaked) thousands (perhaps millions) of classified and top secret documents on a variety of topics including overseas drone strikes and foreign and domestic electronic surveillance. As a systems administrator, he was given access to a vast number of these documents, including some he believed proved that the United States was conducting illegal operations. These include drone strikes against countries we are not at war with, such as Pakistan.
One of the revelations that hit closest to home was the existence of the PRISM surveillance program. This program, in conjunction with at least nine major US internet companies is used to collect internet communications from foreign nationals. The documents released revealed that almost all of the data collected with PRISM comes from Yahoo, Google and Microsoft. This is all certainly alarming news to anyone who is paying attention, because while it’s sort of assumed that companies will use our data for their own profits, it was scary to learn that data was just being handed over en masse to the American government without a warrant or even probable cause.
What is Net Neutrality?
While not being directly related to your security on the internet, it still is very relevant to the average user’s online experience. Net Neutrality is the idea that all data on the internet should be equal, regardless of the source, users, site, platform, devices, and mode of transmission. Examples of this are that P2P transmissions should be treated the same as granny looking up recipes and your cousin playing games on Xbox. Service providers want to be able to charge places like Netflix (specifically Comcast, which has products that directly compete with Netflix) more money to use their network, thus resulting in a tiered internet, much like the model that television has now.
This has been a big issue in the news lately, as the FCC has recently ruled (or, if you've got some time, check out the entire 400 pages) that broadband internet access is a utility and is considered a telecommunications service and not an information service. The FCC established three “Bright Line Rules” which can sum up what this means for the internet.
- No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
- No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no "fast lanes." This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.
For normal people, things shouldn't change too much in their day to day online experiences. The landscape shouldn't change too much in the future, though this doesn't mean that the government (specifically the FCC) will be interfering much in the regular operations of the internet. As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in response to allegations that the FCC has secret plans to regulate the internet: “This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concept.”