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Total surveillance – The world is changing

(Image credit: Image Credit: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock)

We are living in a world where the lack of privacy is becoming not only an issue, but also a norm. It’s a day-to-day reality that consumers worldwide have to live with and may not even realize the extent of this issue. We face cameras on almost every street corner, microphones in street lanterns, changes in privacy laws in the U.S., and constant ads and data collectors tracking our every move on the Internet. Our lack of privacy has reached levels that, even in children’s websites, you can find an average of 18 trackers per site. 

Often, people believe they can out-smart the system and escape tracking by deleting their cookies, using private mode or anonymizing their IP-address. Allow me to let you in on a secret – those “tricks” are myths and will not fully protect you on the Internet. Third parties are still gathering your data and handing your information to companies, governments, and other organizations.

Using the private or incognito mode only deletes all local browser files after the session. It can help you to cloak your browsing history from your boss or spouse who is using the same browser, but it cannot protect you from trackers. Today, professional trackers can identify you even without the need of storing  cookies or other identifying information in your browser. Those trackers have access to more sophisticated technologies such as canvas fingerprinting, thus making private mode a useless solution for consumers. 

A similar situation happens when using IP anonymization – it’s just not good enough to keep you anonymous. Using IP anonymization to cloak your original IP-address is not as effective as many may think. For example, if you ever logged into an account at Facebook, Google, Microsoft or such – and even when you are not logged in anymore - these services know exactly who you are.  They even recognize you on websites outside their domain, when ads, analytics or third party contents are served from their domains. Despite your anonymous IP-address, they gather your browsing habits and profile you personally. In addition to disguising the real IP-address, which does just that – hide it, blocking third party trackers and ads is a must for privacy protection. 

Yes, by doing several of these “tips” at the same time like deleting your cookies or using a private mode, you could in some way enhance your privacy to a certain degree, however, none of these single “tips”, by themselves, will fully protect you from third party trackers collecting your data. 

Today, data is the new fuel and a new currency. Personality profiles are harvested with every click, across all websites we visit, and devices we use. Companies gather our purchase interests and details about our personal lives, such as your political affiliation, financial situation, religious belief and even your health status. Your personality profile is being developed over an extensive period of time based on the device you are using, the websites you are browsing and even more alarming, your mouse movements across the screen. Even if, at some level, all of this data gathering is used to make our lives easier, does that make it fair? Or morally correct? 

For instance, data breaches have reached the political scene; but not with the candidates or parliament, but actually with the electors. During the recent U.S. presidential elections, through data gathering, micro targeting was used to deliver the ‘right’ messages to undecided voters. This means that by analyzing your online behavior, candidates delivered the correct and influential message to you to sway your vote! And all of this political cyber hacking doesn’t include one of the latest trends, doxing – which is the act of exposing an individual’s personal information online. 

Another growing trend many consumers either are unaware of or overlook and disregard is the act of “dynamic pricing”. Dynamic pricing or as called by consumer protection groups, “price discrimination” makes basic goods and services needlessly more expensive depending on your personality profile. Some retailers only take a fraction of the personality profile as the device used or the number of visits to a product page to discriminate the price. Little do individuals know, that by connecting yourself online from a mobile device, desktop or a laptop, these devices are forever linked to your personality profile, which are developed from data trackers and abused over time. Thus, the data contained within your personality profile can lead to costly issues like dynamic pricing, which could make your online purchases substantially more expensive.   

Why should we let data collection companies manipulate and take advantage of our personal browsing history? For instance, the “wrong” personality profile can raise the cost of basic insurance products. It means that if someone visits a sky-diving website their life insurance rates could increase; looks at a Cuban cigar online magazine their health insurance could become costlier; and if they research and buy police radar detectors could end up paying more for car insurance.  

Knowing all of this, you would think that governments would start to legislate or pass laws to improve the protection of their citizens or constituents, well, think again. The newly appointed U.S. Congress just voted to eliminate the consumer privacy rules that the FCC enacted in October 2016. Those rules required Internet Service Providers to obtain customer permission before selling their customer’s personal browsing behavior data. That law has now been removed and, effectively, has given control to the data collectors to sell consumer profiles to the highest bidder. 

This new rule has wider implications than just allowing trackers to retrieve your browsing history or to experience dynamic pricing. The city of San Diego is putting microphones and cameras in over 14,000 city lamps and the CIA is hacking into Smart TVs, cameras and computer microphones. And of course, we have our intelligent personal assistants like Alexa and Google Home, along with other IoT devices and toys who are continuously listening and recording without us even noticing. I am not describing doomsday, these are the current trends in, lack off, consumer privacy.   

We are at just the tip of the iceberg when being followed by ads. There are many more layers underneath this privacy issue that are being tracked by the Internet that people are not aware of including our health status, political orientation, religious belief and more. We always assume these aspects of our intimate lives are kept a secret from the rest of the world, but that is a myth. The debate of privacy will continue to grow and possibly novelist Gabriel García Márquez anticipated the world changing surrounding this debate when he said, “All human beings have three lives: public, private, and secret.” Our secret lives are, for now, what can only be found offline; but in today’s world, is there such a thing as a “secret” life anymore?   

Christian Bennefeld, Co-Founder and CEO, eBlocker   

Image Credit: Antonio Guillem / Shutterstock

Christian Bennefeld studied computer science and mathematics at the Technical University of Karlsruhe and the University of Hamburg in Germany. After various managing positions at international software companies he founded eTracker in 2000, web-analytics and online-marketing optimization. He served as CEO until 2013 made etracker one of Europe’s market leaders. He created a counter model, eBlocker,to the prevalent practice of personalized data collection and website-spanning compilation of intimate user profiles.