Have you thought about Digital Hygiene? – (Part 2)
The Internet Browser
When I first accessed the internet, I was completely mesmerized by its potential. I saw it as a portal to the ultimate information hub. My first page was the Yahoo browser; it listed an index of links on a page that I clicked on to get access to what I considered a form of digital encyclopedia (access initially granted via a 56 K US Robotics modem that sang notes as high as possible when I attempted to log on) – but it successfully resulted in endless information at my fingertips. Today, our budding generations seem to take the internet for granted. They seem unconcerned and uninterested in how the internet is evolving. Today, I believe the internet is heading for disunity and compartmentalization.
The Expansion of the Browser
A few years ago, I stumbled onto an internet browser that said it could help protect my personal privacy when using the web. At the time, I pondered why I would need another browser in contrast to i.e. Chrome or Edge. There are standard browsers which are already installed on our laptops, tablets and phones by default. I installed this ghost browser on my laptop to see what it could offer me. After installation, I was asked whether I wanted to get an overview of how many websites had installed Trackers on my laptop. I thought, “OK, why not, let’s see where this goes” while wondering,”What is a Tracker?” I thought they were called Cookies.
This innovative browser gave me a list of 2,300 trackers that were stored on my laptop. Some familiar IDs I recognized, but 95% of them I didn’t. Let me restate the number of trackers on my laptop: 2,300. Do you know how many organizations are tracking and trading your online activity, or are you too busy to check? Looking through this list, I wondered why these trackers were automatically stored on my laptop without my apparent consent. What is the general interest in tracking my internet behavior? Should I compare this behavior to accepting a stranger following me and taking pictures of me while shopping and exploring my local supermarket?
Back around 1989, when a Mr. Berners-Lee originally invented the concept of hypertext protocol (clicking on a link) and an information management system (the World Wide Web), his motivation was not to create tracking mechanisms for an increasingly commercial and complicated global communications network. The internet was meant to be a free, easy and public ally available information platform. After finding these trackers, I realized that the internet had become more controlled and compromised from forms of commercialization.
What I find worrying is the disturbance of the original internet protocol technology that now allows autonomous nations to warp their own internet connectivity, and thus deciding on how and when to distribute ‘freedom’ of information and communication. This is what China and Russia are doing (and then some). They have technically made it possible to isolate their citizens’ access to the global web when they see fit, i.e. during cyber attacks or mass internal demonstrations where communication between the demonstrators is paramount to their freedom of cause. This essentially goes against my original understanding of the world wide web. Is it just me, or is the internet getting confused about it’s original promise? Internet freedom seems to be generally in decline (newatlas.com/computers/social-media-surveillance-2019-global-internet-freedom-reduction).
Consider what Influence you have on Trackers and Cookies
I’m not saying all Trackers and Cookies are detrimental to your online activity. Many are created by progressive innovators and organisations, who on the day, want to make your surfing and user experience more effective, and even possibly wanting to protect your privacy. It’s just that it takes some degree of surveillance to do this; some of it is camouflaged, some of it requires consent due to laws like General Data Protection Regulations by the EU (GDPR). I catch myself forgetting how important it is to take responsibility in protecting and owning my digital privacy: Digital hygiene should always be in our common interest. Why have we given up our privacy and simply accepted the growing commercialization and tracking of our internet usage?
There is also an important security element connected to our digital footprint. Most of us have heard of, or been subjected to cyber criminality like phishing, ransomware (try searching the name Evil Corp), digital stalking, identity theft, malware, spam, hacking, money laundering, terrorist intelligence gathering etc. There is a legitimate need for surveillance, which I personally accept, but I’m also very aware of the necessity to protect my digital hygiene, including how and when I am tracked. As a kid, I thought George Orwell’s book 1984 was old-school fiction. How crazy is it that we are actually moving into that type of scenario today, but now it’s metamorphosed into a digital format?
How the Internet is Gradually Being Designed to Confuse You
Do you understand the language and your rights presented to you personally in the Terms & Conditions of the digital portal you have just accessed? I’m guessing even lawyers have to reread and rethink what they are looking at. Essentially, T&C’s are too long and seem to be purposely made to confuse the average user. Seriously, this is a job well done aimed to make you give up.
Trackers (a.k.a. Tracking Pixels)
Trackers are basically segments of coding on a website represented by a transparent image made up of a single pixel. When you visit a website or open an email, the tracker pixel is loaded to your computer which then collects and sends information on things like your operating system, IP address, geographical location, browser, and your general behavior on the website – even your keystrokes and how you move your mouse.
There is a whole menu of cookies: Necessary Cookies, Analytics Cookies or Statistics Cookies, Marketing Cookies and Advertising Cookies. When you visit a website, small data files are sent to your browser by the respective website and stored on you computer. It’s kind of like an identification card. Cookies pull information from your login information (that’s why you don’t always have to log in to some sites), the URL of the website you visit, a cookie expiration date (which will be eventually replaced by a new one) and also a random unique number to ID you in future visits. Cookies are stored on your computer every time you visit a site. The information is stored so it can be interpreted later by the organization following you. If you delete your Cookies, you don’t necessarily delete tracking. In general, Cookies should not be able to identify you by name. Today, It is legally (who knows what that really means?) and technically impossible for cookies to read personal information. Do you feel confused?
Join the Party
You should be aware of how organizations share information.
First-Party Tracking Methods
The operator of a website will use first-party trackers and cookies. These are the ones I as a private person have least concern with, as they are often beneficial to the user; i.e. they help us remember our login information, and what we have put in our virtual shopping cart.
Third-Party Tracking Methods
As the name implies, these are trackers which track you on a specific website, but they also track your movement afterwards by assigning you a unique browser footprint. They follow your behavior in order to profile you. Things like your activity on websites, your location, your clicks, your bandwidth, browser(s), even the resolution of your screen. Analytics Cookies, Marketing Cookies and Advertising Cookies are usually third party cookies. You are being tracked because your online activity is worth US billions of dollars when sold to other organizations who use it to target you with advertising and offers. This is not all bad and evil, as there are many hard working people who use these available methods to make a living and offer legitimate services and products that you might find interesting. Nothing wrong with that. But I think it is necessary for all of us to be aware that we are being tracked, often in real time, and that you should have a right to check mate tracking if you want to. Data mining and the distribution of it is massive business. Have you considered what your personal data is worth and why you should protect it?