Journalist, content writer and translator based in Berlin.

Former hacker makes a dismal account of your online privacy in the era of tech giants soaking up all our private information. Simple precautions, however, might do a lot of good.

Internet privacy

Being invisible on the web almost sounds like utopia. Most people have accepted that every click is stored by tech giants like Google. If you’ve read my articles, you know by now that not just browsing is stored but also GPS locations and Wi-Fi networks you encounter.

Fetus in the details

Former hacker Kevin Mitnick, shares his inside knowledge in The Art of Invisibility; an upsetting look into the world of online privacy. But why even bother to protect yourself from online tracking? What can companies do with all the gathered information of you and others using their services? Let me give an example. A company named Target started sending prenatal brochures to a family in America when they suspected the daughter might be pregnant. The father was furious, but the daughter later admitted her pregnancy according to a New York Times article. Mr Andrew Pole, Senior Manager at Target, is cited in the article explaining how Target identified 25 products that together indicate the likelihood of a pregnancy and the probable due date.

«More data means better predictions and increased sales»

Big Data is not just about analysing clicks; it actually predicts life events that effect your spending pattern like a pregnancy, move or new job. This allows companies to offer the right products at the right time. Big Data is extremely effective in predicting human behaviour because of the sheer size of data points. The data of everyone on the Internet can be used to make a model. More data means better predictions and increased sales.

Sending a brochure might sound like an innocent example of what companies can do with predictive analysis. But what if you haven’t shared the happy news with your spouse yet, or if it was a minor or suffered sexual assault that caused the pregnancy? Then it’s extremely hurtful to all of a sudden receive baby flyers and coupons. It is even more destructive when the company uses data for other decisions with more severe impact, like who to offer health care coverage (or not).

Groceries, real estate and… user data

So-called data brokers buy and sell lists of personal information from all over the world. It is even possible to buy a list of rape sufferers, according to Executive Director Ms. Pam Dixon from World Privacy Forum in an edition of ZEMBLA. The price for a name of a rape victim? 7.9 cents on the dollar, according to Ms. Dixon. So any company with memberships or online accounts can monetize the data by selling it to a data broker. Essentially any company with a website could also be in the business of selling data depending on their privacy policy. Many privacy policies already include the right to gather, sell or share specific information with third parties.

«It is even possible to buy a list of rape victims»

Eventually, data sales could become more profitable than the other products or services of the company. You might think a company just sells dog food, real estate or protein bars, but the main source of income can actually be its user data. The financial incentives coupled with the increasingly available and affordable technology to apply big data, is a reason for ordinary citizens to consider hiding some or all of their information online.

Safety measures

And this is where the The Art of Invisibility comes in. In my opinion everyone should read this book and apply its guidelines. Or as Mitnick states, «You may not have state secrets to share. You might, however, be fighting your ex in a legal dispute. Or you might be in a disagreement with your boss. You might be contacting a friend who is still in touch with an abusive family member.» One takeaway from the book is that being anonymous on the Web is extremely difficult. Complete anonymity requires for starters a stand-alone computer with a new operating system (Tails) and browser (TOR) paid for in cash. This computer can never be used to login on your email or social media accounts and never even be turned on at home or at work.

«Complete anonymity requires a stand-alone computer with a new operating system»

When you’re not hiding from that boss or ex and simply want to minimize your digital footprint there are several easier things you can do according to Mitnick. «We can think before posting that photo with a home address visible in the background. Or before providing a real birth date and other personal information on our social media profiles. Or before browsing the Internet without using the HTTPS Everywhere extension. Or before making confidential calls or sending texts without using an end-to-end encryption tool such as Signal. Or before messaging a doctor through AOL, MSN Messenger, or Google Talk without OTR. Or before sending a confidential e-mail without using PGP [Pretty Good Privacy encryption program] or GPG [GNU Privacy Guard].»Tools like these, and a little simple awareness, are hardly invasive precautions.

It only takes a few minutes to install a chrome extension or get a secure email address. With your personal information becoming more valuable and tracking getting easier thanks to developments in big data, I suggest you download these tools now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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