Who’s Watching You? (Part 4)

12/8/2012 9:19:12 AM

Protect yourself

So what can we do? The Communications Data Bill is yet to be passed as law, so contacting your MP could be a good place to start. In fact, getting as many people as possible to contact their MPs would be a better place.

A more immediate solution is to ensure that you and anyone else who uses your computer is aware that the data they put online is not private. Also use tools such as Collusion to monitor who is watching you.

You can change your browser’s security settings to stop these cookies being stored in the first place, and regularly clear out the history and cookies to remove those that slip through the net. Limit the use of location services, resist clicking the ‘Like’ button, and even use a different browser for all interaction on social networks.

The more cautions could boot a Linux operating system from a USB flash drive when using public Wi-Fi, or download Wi-Fi Guard from AVG.

In the end, though, the most potent weapon we can use against those who would try to profit from tracking us is an awareness of what might be happening.

The internet is growing up and maturing into a stunningly powerful tool and an amazing place to explore. Like any great adventure, there are a few dangers to negotiate along the way.

We shouldn’t let the fear of a Big Brother state or shadowy data brokers deny us the advantages of services such as Google and Facebook, and if we’re careful to limit the important data we share then we should be able to protect ourselves in some measure.

Ryan Merkley sums it up rather well: “A no-tracking universe probably isn’t the answer. We want users to be informed and in control of their web experience: the more they know, the less likely anyone can track them without their knowledge. Informed and empowered users has always been the best thing for the web.

In with the out crowd

If you’re ever thought about quitting a service such as Facebook then you’ll realise just how big a decision that actually is. Google has heavily promoted its Google+ service, but struggled to draw the kind of numbers needed to make it a serious rival.

Primarily, this is because most people who would ever use a social network are already using Facebook; more importantly, so are their friends. Who really has the time to update two or three social network and, even if you did, what’s the point?

If the privacy compromises associated with either social network have so far but you off signing up and catching up with long-lost friends and family, several alternative options are available – provided you can convince your friends to sign up too.

Diaspora is one of a new breed of social networks that belong to the users; its decentralized network means no-one holds all the information. Instead, the site works via social pods that join together to form the network. The service also allows you to link your Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr account and still chat with your existing friends. Although it’s invite-only at the moment, it shows promise for the future.

Another independent site worth checking out is Friendica. F coffers many of the same features as Diaspora, but adds some interesting ideas, such as content automatically expiring after a given period of time and the ability to create posts of unlimited length. Bloggers should be happy here.

Chrome privacy

Changing your settings in Google’s Chrome web browser is easy. Simply open Chrome, click the spanner icon, then choose Settings. Scroll down to and click ‘Show advanced settings’ to reveal the Privacy menu. Description: Chrome privacy

Chrome privacy

Ensure that the ‘Enable Phishing and Malware protection’ box s ticked, then click the Content Settings button. Leave alone the Cookies setting, but be sure to enable ‘Block third-party coolies and site data’. For added safety you can also select the option below, which clears your data when you close Chrome. Click Ok and close the Settings tab.

Simple ways to protect yourself

Description: Add Entry

Add Entry

  1. Limit the information you share publicity. If you’re including your birthday in a social profile, avoid stating your birth year – this is a key identifier, which trackers can use to distinguish you from other people with the same name.
  2. Use a secondary email address when registering for websites, forums, competitions or shopping online. Hotmail and Yahoo offer free, quick to set up accounts.
  3. Use one browser for general web activities and another for more sensitive information. Avoid suing ‘Like’ and ‘+1’ buttons.
  4. Regularly change your passwords and use a separate one for each account. A password manager can be useful here.
  5. Make sure any browser you use has the Privacy settings switched on. These are often off by default.

Super cookies

Cookies serve a useful purpose on most sites, able to remember your user settings and preferences, but not all cookies are good news. Flash, Super and Zombie cookies threaten our privacy and can prove harder to eradicate.

“These types of cookies work by storing a unique ID in multiple places at the same time,: explains AVG’s chief technology officer Yuval Ben-Itzhak. “For example, if a user deletes a traditional cookie in the browser but not in Flash, a tracking network could identify the user through Flash and rewrite the original browser cookie with the same unique ID. This makes the ID persistent and very effective in tracking users over a long period. By simultaneously removing all types of cookies or other places where unique IDs are stored, it is possible to minimize the chances of being identifies and tracked.”

Description: Trackers on this page

Trackers on this page

The software company has also developed a Do Not Track (DNT) feature for its Internet Security 2012 package, which is compatible with Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox. DNT could provide more effective protection than standard methods.

“The ‘passive’ DNT feature used in web browsers works by providing a DNT header to the sites a user is visiting,” says Ben-Itzhak. If this header is activated, the browser asks the site not to track the user. The problem is that adhering to DNT isn’t compulsory.

Rather than hoping the website will not track the user, AVG actively blocks the connection. Blocking third-party cookies doesn’t guarantee users can’t be tracked; only by actively blocking the tracking is the user fully in control. 

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