Internet privacy involves the right or mandate of personal privacy concerning the storing, re-purposing, provision to third parties, and displaying of information pertaining to oneself via the Internet. Internet privacy is a subset of data privacy. Privacy concerns have been articulated from the beginnings of large-scale computer sharing.
Privacy can entail either Personally-Identifying Information (PII) or non-PII information such as a site visitor’s behavior on a website. PII refers to any information that can be used to identify an individual. For example, age and physical address alone could identify who an individual is without explicitly disclosing their name, as these two factors are unique enough to typically identify a specific person.
Some experts such as Steve Rambam, a private investigator specializing in Internet privacy cases, believe that privacy no longer exists; saying, “Privacy is dead – get over it”. In fact, it has been suggested that the “appeal of online services is to broadcast personal information on purpose. On the other hand, in his essay The Value of Privacy, security expert Bruce Schneier says, “Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.”
Levels of Privacy
Internet and digital privacy are viewed differently from traditional expectations of privacy. Internet privacy is primarily concerned with protecting user information. Law Professor Jerry Kang explains that the term privacy expresses space, decision, and information. In terms of space, individuals have an expectation that their physical spaces (i.e. homes, cars) not be intruded on. Privacy within the realm of decision is best illustrated by the landmark case Roe v. Wade. Lastly, information privacy is in regards to the collection of user information from a variety of sources, which produces great discussion.
The 1997 Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF) created under President Clinton defined information privacy as “an individual’s claim to control the terms under which personal information–information identifiable to the individual–is acquired, disclosed, and used.” At the end of the 1990s, with the rise of the internet, it became clear that the internet and companies would need to abide by new rules to protect individuals’ privacy. With the rise of the internet and mobile networks, the salience of internet privacy is a daily concern for users.
People with only a casual concern for Internet privacy need not achieve total anonymity. Internet users may protect their privacy through controlled disclosure of personal information. The revelation of IP addresses, non-personally-identifiable profiling, and similar information might become acceptable trade-offs for the convenience that users could otherwise lose using the workarounds needed to suppress such details rigorously. On the other hand, some people desire much stronger privacy. In that case, they may try to achieve Internet anonymity to ensure privacy — use of the Internet without giving any third parties the ability to link the Internet activities to personally-identifiable information of the Internet user. In order to keep their information private, people need to be careful with what they submit and look at online. When filling out forms and buying merchandise, that becomes tracked and because the information was not private, companies are now sending Internet users spam and advertising on similar products.
There are also several governmental organizations that protect individuals’ privacy and anonymity on the Internet, to a point. In an article presented by the FTC, in October 2011, a number of pointers were brought to attention that helps an individual internet user avoid possible identity theft and other cyber-attacks. Preventing or limiting the usage of Social Security numbers online, being wary and respectful of emails including spam messages, being mindful of personal financial details, creating and managing strong passwords, and intelligent web-browsing behaviors are recommended, among others.
Posting things on the Internet can be harmful or in danger of malicious attack. Some information posted on the Internet is permanent, depending on the terms of service, and privacy policies of particular services offered online. This can include comments written on blogs, pictures, and Internet sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. It is absorbed into cyberspace and once it is posted, anyone can potentially find it and access it. Some employers may research a potential employee by searching online for the details of their online behave ours, possibly affecting the outcome of the success of the candidate.
Risks to Internet Privacy
Companies are hired to watch what internet sites people visit, and then use the information, for instance by sending advertising based on one’s browsing history. There are many ways in which people can divulge their personal information, for instance by use of “social media” and by sending bank and credit card information to various websites. Moreover, directly observed behavior, such as browsing logs, search queries, or contents of the Facebook profile can be automatically processed to infer potentially more intrusive details about an individual, such as sexual orientation, political and religious views, race, substance use, intelligence, and personality.
Those concerned about Internet privacy often cite a number of privacy risks — events that can compromise privacy — which may be encountered through Internet use. These range from the gathering of statistics on users to more malicious acts such as the spreading of spyware and the exploitation of various forms of bugs (software faults).
Several social networking sites try to protect the personal information of their subscribers. On Facebook, for example, privacy settings are available to all registered users: they can block certain individuals from seeing their profile, they can choose their “friends”, and they can limit who has access to one’s pictures and videos. Privacy settings are also available on other social networking sites such as Google Plus and Twitter. The user can apply such settings when providing personal information on the internet.
In late 2007 Facebook launched the Beacon program where user rental records were released to the public for friends to see. Many people were enraged by this breach of privacy, and the Lane v. Facebook, Inc. case ensued.
Children and adolescents often use the Internet (including social media) in ways that risk their privacy: a cause for growing concern among parents. Young people also may not realize that all their information and browsing can and may be tracked while visiting a particular site and that it is up to them to protect their own privacy. They must be informed about all these risks. For example, on Twitter, threats include shortened links that lead one to potentially harmful places. In their e-mail inbox, threats include email scams and attachments that get them to install malware and disclose personal information. On Torrent sites, threats include malware hiding in video, music, and software downloads. Even when using a smartphone, threats include geolocation, meaning that one’s phone can detect where they are and post it online for all to see. Users can protect themselves by updating virus protection, using security settings, downloading patches, installing a firewall, screening e-mail, shutting down spyware, controlling cookies, using encryption, fending off browser hijackers, and blocking pop-ups.
However, most people have little idea how to go about doing many of these things. How can the average user with no training be expected to know how to run their own network security (especially as things are getting more complicated all the time)? Many businesses hire professionals to take care of these issues, but most individuals can only do their best to learn about all this.
In 1998, the Federal Trade Commission in the USA considered the lack of privacy for children on the Internet and created the Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA limits the options which gather information from children and created warning labels if potential harmful information or content was presented. In 2000, Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was developed to implement safe Internet policies such as rules and filter software. These laws, awareness campaigns, parental and adult supervision strategies, and Internet filters can all help to make the Internet safer for children around the world.
In the past, websites have not generally made the user explicitly aware of the storing of cookies, however, tracking cookies and especially third-party tracking cookies are commonly used as ways to compile long-term records of individuals’ browsing histories — a privacy concern that prompted European and US lawmakers to take action in 2011. Cookies can also have implications for computer forensics. In past years, most computer users were not completely aware of cookies, but recently, users have become conscious of possible detrimental effects of Internet cookies: a recent study done has shown that 58% of users have at least once, deleted cookies from their computer and that 39% of users delete cookies from their computer every month. Since cookies are advertisers’ main way of targeting potential customers, and some customers are deleting cookies, some advertisers started to use persistent Flash cookies and zombie cookies, but modern browsers and anti-malware software can now block or detect and remove such cookies.
The original developers of cookies intended that only the website that originally distributed cookies to users could retrieve them, therefore returning only data already possessed by the website. However, in practice programmers can circumvent this restriction. Possible consequences include:
• the placing of a personally-identifiable tag in a browser to facilitate web profiling, or,
• use of cross-site scripting or other techniques to steal information from a user’s cookies.
Cookies do have benefits that many people may not know. One benefit is that for websites that one frequently visits that require a password, cookies make it so they do not have to sign in every time. A cookie can also track one’s preferences to show them websites that might interest them. Cookies make more websites free to use without any type of payment. Some of these benefits are also seen as negative. For example, one of the most common ways of theft is hackers taking one’s user name and password that a cookie saves. While a lot of sites are free, they have to make a profit somehow so they sell their space to advertisers. These ads, which are personalized to one’s likes, can often freeze one’s computer or cause annoyance. Cookies are mostly harmless except for third-party cookies. These cookies are not made by the website itself, but by web banner advertising companies. These third-party cookies are so dangerous because they take the same information that regular cookies do, such as browsing habits and frequently visited websites, but then they give out this information to other companies.
Cookies are often associated with pop-up windows because these windows are often, but not always, tailored to a person’s preferences. These windows are an irritation because they are often hard to close out of because the close button is strategically hidden in an unlikely part of the screen. In the worst cases, these pop-up ads can take over the screen and while trying to exit out of it, can take one to another unwanted website.
Cookies are seen so negatively because they are not understood and go unnoticed while someone is simply surfing the Internet. The idea that every move one makes while on the Internet is being watched, would frighten most users.
Some users choose to disable cookies in their web browsers. Such an action can reduce some privacy risks, but may severely limit or prevent the functionality of many websites. All significant web browsers have this disabling ability built-in, with no external program required. As an alternative, users may frequently delete any stored cookies. Some browsers (such as Mozilla Firefox and Opera) offer the option to clear cookies automatically whenever the user closes the browser. A third option involves allowing cookies in general, but preventing their abuse. There are also a host of wrapper applications that will redirect cookies and cache data to some other location. Concerns exist that the privacy benefits of deleting cookies have been over-stated.
The process of profiling (also known as “tracking”) assembles and analyzes several events, each attributable to a single originating entity, in order to gain information (especially patterns of activity) relating to the originating entity. Some organizations engage in the profiling of people’s web browsing, collecting the URLs of sites visited. The resulting profiles can potentially link with information that personally identifies the individual who did the browsing.
Some web-oriented marketing-research organizations may use this practice legitimately, for example: in order to construct profiles of ‘typical Internet users’. Such profiles, which describe average trends of large groups of Internet users rather than of actual individuals, can then prove useful for market analysis. Although the aggregate data does not constitute a privacy violation, some people believe that the initial profiling does.
Profiling becomes a more contentious privacy issue when data-matching associates the profile of an individual with personally-identifiable information of the individual.
Governments and organizations may set up honeypot websites – featuring controversial topics – with the purpose of attracting and tracking unwary people. This constitutes a potential danger for individuals.
When some users choose to disable HTTP cookie to reduce privacy risks as noted, new types of cookies were invented: since cookies are advertisers’ main way of targeting potential customers, and some customers were deleting cookies, some advertisers started to use persistent Flash cookies and zombie cookies. In a 2009 study, Flash cookies were found to be a popular mechanism for storing data on the top 100 most visited sites. Another 2011 study of social media found that, “Of the top 100 web sites, 31 had at least one overlap between HTTP and Flash cookies.” However, modern browsers and anti-malware software can now block or detect and remove such cookies.
Flash cookies, also known as Local Shared Objects, work the same ways as normal cookies and are used by the Adobe Flash Player to store information at the user’s computer. They exhibit a similar privacy risk as normal cookies, but are not as easily blocked, meaning that the option in most browsers to not accept cookies does not affect Flash cookies. One way to view and control them is with browser extensions or add-ons. Flash cookies are unlike HTTP cookies in a sense that they are not transferred from the client back to the server. Web browsers read and write these cookies and can track any data by web usage.
Although browsers such as Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3 have added a ‘Privacy Browsing’ setting, they still allow Flash cookies to track the user and operate fully. However, the Flash player browser plugin can be disabled or uninstalled, and Flash cookies can be disabled on a per-site or global basis. Adobe’s Flash and (PDF) Reader are not the only browser plugins whose past security defects have allowed spyware or malware to be installed: there have also been problems with Oracle’s Java.
Photographs on the internet
Today many people have digital cameras and post their photographs online, for example, street photography practitioners do so for artistic purposes and social documentary photography practitioners do so to document the common people in everyday life. The people depicted in these photos might not want to have them appear on the Internet. Police arrest photos, considered public records in many jurisdictions, are often posted on the internet by numerous online mug-shot publishing sites.
Some organizations attempt to respond to this privacy-related concern. For example, the 2005 Wikimania conference required that photographers have the prior permission of the people in their pictures, albeit this made it impossible for photographers to practice candid photography, and doing the same in a public place would violate the photographers’ free speech rights. Some people wore a ‘no photos’ tag to indicate they would prefer not to have their photo taken
Face recognition technology can be used to gain access to a person’s private data, according to a new study. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University combined image scanning, cloud computing, and public profiles from social network sites to identify individuals in the offline world. Data captured even included a user’s social security number. Experts have warned of the privacy risks faced by the increased merging of our online and offline identities. The researchers have also developed an ‘augmented reality mobile app that can display personal data over a person’s image captured on a smartphone screen. Since these technologies are widely available, our future identities may become exposed to anyone with a smartphone and an Internet connection. Researchers believe this could force us to reconsider our future attitudes to privacy.