Car keys, the matching side of socks, ships traversing the Bermuda triangle –at some point we have all wondered as to the whereabouts of these things. But what about your information on the Internet? Do you ever give as much thought as to where those google searches, uploaded pictures, and credit card information disappear to in the vast world of cyberspace? Not knowing where your information is going is the number one threat to your privacy.
So where is your data?
Our journey to track your online data takes us firstly to your search engine. A search engine is defined as “a program that searches for and identifies items in a database that correspond to keywords or characters specified by the user, used especially for finding sites on the World Wide Web”. You are most likely familiar with ones such as Google, Yahoo!, Bing and ask.com but did you know that your activity on these search engines are tracked.
According to USA Today, every Google search you have ever performed resides on their servers. Additionally, that information is tied to your searches on related Google services such as YouTube and Google Maps. Every computer, cell phone, iPad and any device connected to the Internet has an IP address – a unique string of numbers separated by full stops that identifies each device using the Internet Protocol to communicate over a network. This serves as a unique identifier and can hence be traced.
One of the many means of tracking Internet use is an HTTP cookie. Cookies are small pieces of information sent from a website and stored in a user’s browser. The cookie is then sent back to the server during every future visit to the website. These are often used to session tracking, storing user preferences and authentication.
An IP address can serve as a personal identifier through the use of authentication systems by many websites and internet service providers (ISPs). This has the potential to reveal private information such as political, religious or sexual orientation, as well as medical issues. For example, in 2006 AOL released a list of 20 million Web search queries of 650 000 users. The New York Times reports how user no.4417749 was easily identified by her searches which were related to her location and name. AOL eventually took down the list and apologised for broadcasting the data.
Cookie proliferation is increasingly becoming an issue since websites that would normally have one or two cookies would now have tens of cookies from various third party sources, typically for use in marketing. This means that after visiting 4 websites you can be tracked by as much as 25 other websites as was depicted in Gary Kovacs’ TED Talk on “Tracking the Trackers”.
The social network
Next on our tour of your online data trail are social networking sites. Many of us are eager to join our peers on sites such Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so we accept the Privacy terms and conditions. We provide information such as our home town, current town, relationship status, education and interests and upload pictures of our family and friends for public consumption.
Some people edit privacy settings to “friends” or “friends of friends” in an attempt to be in control of where information is going. However, the nature of social media is that the “personal data of the users…is still the key currency” (2012 UNESCO Global Survey on Internet Privacy and Freedom of Expression. This means that your data is readily distributed to advertising agencies.
Facial recognition technology and your privacy
Social media also threatens privacy in a major way through the use of facial recognition data and location data. The mass uploading of photos on Facebook has culminated in a massive facial recognition database. From your posted photos to tagged photos, images of you from every angle are made available to the outside parties that Facebook sell your information to. The availability of this data together with increased surveillance technology means that government can easily track individuals.
In 2012, Jennifer Lynch of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the Senate Committee on the Judiciary that “some or all of this [Facebook] information may be shared with third parties such as other companies, app developers and advertisers” and that “the government regularly reviews and requests this data to verify citizenship applications, for evidence in criminal cases, and to look or threats to U.S. safety and security.”
Location-aware devices, “check-in posts”, “geo location features” and “public event invites” Social media notifies everyone where you have been, where you are now and where you will be. Even during the early period of the cellphone, the E911 Mandate required cell phone providers develop a geographical tracking system to determine the location of the individual user in the event of an emergency. The availability of this information poses a threat to your privacy as it is made accessible to potential stalkers, advertisers who want to send ads for commercial enterprises near you and even your employers.
The issue of not knowing where your location data is going becomes increasingly pressing as surveillance technology advances. Catherine Crump in her TED Talk “the small and dangerous detail the police track about you” discusses the fact that images of vehicles are unknowingly recorded and stored in a law enforcement database so as to track license plates. This thereby gives the police information on where each individual is or was at a specific place and time.
The Government’s helping hand
Our final stop of your information trail relates to “Administrative Collection” as it termed in the video “Privacy, Regulation, and the Internet” by Libertarianism.org. As government organizations collect data on health care, financial status, employment history and family relationships, with the intention of assisting the citizenry, privacy rights are removed by the “helping hand of the government”.
In the 21st century this poses an issue as there is an increased capacity of the government to record, store and distribute that information. Another place that your information may be taken up by law enforcement agencies is the cloud. Gartner states that “36% of U.S. consumer content will be stored in the cloud by 2016”.
You have no reasonable expectancy of privacy
The problem with uploading files to the cloud however is that that data now becomes the property of the online service therefore invoking the third party doctrine. This is “a United States legal theory” that states that persons who surrender their data to third parties such as internet service providers email servers or other online services have “no reasonable expectation of privacy”. United States government can then override the Fourth Amendment right without justification or the use of a search warrant.
Not knowing where your information goes puts your online privacy at risk. Being aware of the way search engines, social media sites, administrative collection and cloud computing use your information, you can then take the necessary steps to assert that right to online privacy.
About Alyssa Mike
Alyssa is one of the genii of Trinidad who won a scholarship for Stanford University. Prior to Privacy Shell, Alyssa played important roles such as President of SJC UNESCO.