WP_000796

The three kinds of privacy threats

WP_000796We talk a lot about privacy on the net nowadays. Some claim that privacy is dead, and you just have to cope with it. Some are slightly less pessimistic. But all agree that our new cyber-society will redefine and reduce what we once knew as personal privacy.

The privacy threat is not monolithic. There are actually many different kinds of privacy threats and they are sometimes mixed up. So let’s set this straight and have a look at the three major classes of privacy.

Peer privacy

This is about controlling what data you share with your family, spouse, friends, colleagues etc. Tools for doing this are passwords on web accounts, computers and mobile devices, as well as your privacy settings in Facebook and other social media.

This is the fundamental level of privacy that most of us are aware of already. When this kind of privacy is discussed, it is usually about Facebook privacy settings and how to protect your on-line accounts against hackers. Yes, protection against hacking is actually a sort of privacy issue too.

Provider privacy

Who knows most about your life? You, your spouse or Facebook? Chances are that the service providers you use have the most comprehensive profile on you. At least if we only count data that is stored in an organized and searchable way. This profile may be a lot wider than what you have shared yourself. Google knows what you Google for and your surfing habits are tracked and blended into the profile. The big data companies also try to include as much as possible of your non-digital life. Credit card data, for example, is low-hanging fruit that tells a lot about us.

But what exactly are they doing with that data? It’s said that if you aren’t paying for the product, then you ARE the product. The multitude of free services on the net is made possible by business models that utilize the huge database. Marketing on the service provider’s own page is the first step. Then they sell data to other marketing companies or run embedded marketing. And it gets scary when they start to sell data to other companies too. Like someone who consider employing you or who need to figure out if you’re a high-risk insurance customer.

The main problem with provider privacy is that there aren’t any simple tools to guard you. The service provider can use data in their systems freely no matter what kind of password you use to keep outsiders out. The only way to master this is to control what data they get on you, and your own behavior is what matters here. But it is hard to live a normal cyber-life and fight the big-data companies. I have posted some advice about Facebook and plan to come back to other aspects of the issue in later posts.

Authority privacy

The security and privacy of Internet is to a large extent enforced by legislation and trust, not by technical methods like encryption. But don’t expect the law to protect you if you do a crime. Authorities can break your privacy if there is a justified need for it. This can be a good compromise that guards both our privacy and security, as long as the authorities are trustworthy.

But what happens if they aren’t? Transparency and control are after all things that make the work harder for authorities, so they don’t like it. And a big threat, like terrorism for example, can easily be misused to expand their powers far beyond what’s reasonable. Authority privacy really becomes an issue when the working mode changes from requesting data on selected targets to siphoning up a broad stream of data and storing it for future use. There has been plenty of revelations recently showing that this is exactly what has happened in the US.

There can be many problems because of this. It is, first of all, apparent that data collected by US is misused. The European Union and United Nations are probably not very dangerous terrorist organizations, but still they rank high on the target list. Data collected by authorities is also supposed to be guarded well and used for our own good only. But keep in mind that a single person, Edward Snowden, could walk out with gigabytes of top secret data. He did the right thing and spoke out when his own ethics couldn’t take it anymore, and that’s why we know about him. But how many secret Snowdens have there been before him? More selfish persons who have exchanged data for a luxury life in some other country without going public. Maybe your data? Are you sure China, Russia or Iran don’t have some of the data that the US authorities have collected about you?

And let’s finally play a little game to remind us about how volatile the world is. Imagine that today’s Internet and computer technology was available in 1920. The Weimar republic, also known as Germany, was blooming in the golden twenties. But Europe was not too steady. The authorities had Word War I in fresh memory and wanted to protect the citizens against external threats. They set up a petabyte-datacenter and stored all mails, Facebook updates, cloud files etc. This was widely accepted as some criminal cases had been solved using the data, and the police was proud to present the cases in media. The twenties passed and the thirties brought depression and new rulers. The datacenter proved to be very useful once again, as it was possible to track everybody who had been in contact with Jews and communists. It also brought a benefit in the war to come because many significant services were located in Germany and foreign companies and state persons had been careless enough to use them. The world map might look different today if this imaginary scenario really had happened.

No, something like that could never happen today, you might be thinking. Well, I can’t predict the future but I bet a lot of people were saying the same in the twenties. So never take the current situation for granted. The world will change, often to the better but sometimes to the worse.

So lack of authority privacy is not something that will hurt you right away in your daily life. Your spouse or friends will not learn embarrassing details about you this way, and it will not drown you in spam. But the long term effect of the stored data is hard to predict and there are plenty of plausible harmful scenarios. This really means that proper privacy legislation and trustworthy authorities is of paramount importance for the Internet. A primary set of personal data is of course needed by the authorities to run society’s daily business. But data exceeding that should only be collected based on a justified suspicion, and not be kept any longer than needed. There need to be transparency and control of this handling to ensure it follows regulations, and to keep up peoples’ trust in the authorities.

So what can I do while waiting for the world to get its act together on authority privacy? Not much, I’m afraid. You could stop using a computer but that’s not convenient. Starting to use encryption extensively is another path, but that’s almost as inconvenient. Technology is not the optimal solution because this isn’t a technical problem. It’s a political problem. Political problems are supposed to be solved in the voting booth. It also helps to support organizations like EFF.

Safe surfing,
Micke

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June 22, 2016
Porn blog post image

4 People who can see what Porn you Watch, and 4 Tips to Stop it

In the grand scheme of things, there certainly are more important facets to online privacy than keeping one’s porn habits private (government overreach, identity theft, credit card fraud to name a few). However, adult browsing histories are one of the secrets in their online lives people want to protect the most, so it might be disconcerting to know that porn browsing is not as private as one might think. A large majority of web users are lulled into a false sense of security by incognito mode or private browsing, but this is only one of the steps needed toward becoming private online. Here are a few people who have access to this info, along  with a few easy tips that can be taken to prevent this from happening. 1. Anyone on the same hotspot No one is suggesting you should watch porn at your local coffee shop (in fact, please don’t). However, what people surf in places like the privacy of their hotel room should probably stay there. With that in mind, the following statement might be more than a little disconcerting: What you do on Wi-Fi can be usually be seen by pretty much anyone connected to that hotspot. It doesn't require great hacking skills to see what other people connected to the same network are doing. Only traffic on encrypted websites starting with https is always secure, and almost no adult sites fall under this category. 2. Foreign web service providers When traveling, it's easy to forget that what might be culturally acceptable in one country can land you in hot water with the authorities in another. Whether on public Wi-Fi or roaming on the network of a foreign internet service provider, they may be bound by law to report anyone surfing adult material. The personal freedom we enjoy to surf anything we want online is so second nature to many of us by now, we easily forget the same isn't true for others. 3. Analytics and advertisers (often one and the same) It might not bee too surprising to hear that most companies aren't exactly jumping at the chance to be associated with adult websites. For this reason, networks that serve ads to adult websites don't serve ads to "normal" websites, making porn sites mostly self-contained when it comes to using your private information for advertising purposes. Unfortunately, your adult browsing can still be connected to you. Many adult websites implement analytic services, as well as "like" and "share" buttons, that feed into major advertisers such as Google and Facebook. 4. Your employer (in the U.S. and many other countries) Now, we are DEFINITELY not suggesting you watch naughty stuff at work. I mean, they call it NSFW for a reason. However, that doesn’t change the fact that in some countries, companies have an uncomfortable amount of rights to spy on their workers. It’s natural that employers don’t want their workers doing anything illegal, but you still have a right to privacy, even on a work network. What are your options? So what can you do to prevent privacy intrusions? The first and most obvious choice is to not supply any personal information to adult websites. A lot of porn sites require registration in order to comment on videos (if that's your thing) or to view content in higher quality. Keeping a separate email address for adult websites is therefore highly recommended. The other obvious choice is to always have private browsing on, as this prevents cookie-based tracking and embarrassing browsing histories from being saved on your computer. A slightly more technical but still very easy tip is to disable JavaScript from your browser settings while surfing adult websites. A lot of websites don't function without JavaScript, but all the adult websites we tried for research purposes work just fine. JavaScript makes it much easier  to do something called device fingerprinting. This frustratingly intrusive method of snooping involves the use of scripts to identify your computer based on variables such as your screen size, operating system and number of installed fonts. It might not seem like it, but there are enough variables to make most devices in the world completely unique. But the simplest and most efficient method of controlling your privacy is to use a VPN. A VPN (virtual private network) encrypts all your traffic, meaning no one is able to intercept it and see what sites you visit or what you download. It also hides your real IP address, the unique number which can easily be used to identify you online. A top-tier VPN like Freedome also contains extra features like anti-tracking to stop advertising networks from identifying you, and malware protection to automatically block webpages that contain malicious code. The app is easy to use, and available on most platforms. Online privacy is not a difficult or expensive  goal to achieve, and by following these few steps you will be able to surf what you want without worry.

June 13, 2016
BY