Privacy and the Internet

SpyVsSpyIn the last week I have seen a number of articles talking about privacy and the Internet. This has become a hot topic after it was leaked that the NSA is gathering Internet data and emails. But the articles I am reading are starting to look deeper, and they all come to the same fundamental conclusion: there is no personal privacy on the Internet. None. Zero. Nada.

For anybody to think otherwise is a convenient self-delusion that makes you feel better about your own behavior on the web. But since the web was founded your ISP has recorded every web site and every email and every comment on a blog that you have ever written. ISPs differ greatly in how long they keep your data and how willing they are to share it with outsiders like law enforcement. But they all record everything you do.

But as the revelations about the NSA have showed us, it doesn’t really matter if you have a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ ISP in terms of somebody who will protect the integrity of your data. The NSA set up data catch points at most of the major Internet POPs in the country, and in doing so snagged all of the data that comes through those chokepoint in the network.

If you are a normal person like me you probably are not that worried about the NSA having your information. After all, if you aren’t doing anything wrong what do you have to be afraid of? And the chances are, for now, that the answer is that there is nothing to be afraid of. It’s very unlikely that the NSA is processing the mountains of data that they have on average citizens. I feel somewhat certain that they are mostly sifting through that data looking for bad guys.

But there is still concern. I’ve seen stories about people who have had the police come to their house because they wrote emails with some key words that the government was looking for. The problem of living in a big brother world is that there are going to be a lot of false positives and many innocent people will be investigated unnecessarily. And that is the part when it starts getting scary if the one being investigated is you.

But the NSA aside, there are worse things on the Internet. The chances of the NSA creating a profile on you are near to zero. But the chances of Google and Amazon and a ton of other big information companies doing so is 100%. If you are on the web you are being profiled. Period. Over time they know a lot about you. Your name, address and, birthday. But also what you look at on the web, what you purchase, what you think of purchasing. What movies you watch and what web sites and books you read. But they also know more personal data like your political preferences, your health and medical issues, and whether you have any more private habits like looking at porn or visiting unsavory political sites.

Let’s face it. Over time these big companies probably know things about you that even your spouse might not know. I know that anybody who stops and thinks about everything they have ever done on the web has to be concerned.

And we all have suspicions that it goes a lot deeper than that. One of my engineers at CCG tells about typing in an email that he was thinking about buying a new pick-up truck. And within a day he started seeing pick-up truck ads everywhere he went on the web. And he can’t recall having seen them before that. You have to admit that if Google is somehow scanning your emails (something they deny) then they really know a lot about you.

But I told him that he can’t be surprised by this. Because there never was any promise of privacy on the web. And that is finally becoming apparent to many people.

2 thoughts on “Privacy and the Internet

  1. Dear Doug:
    Your engineer is correct… I have seen the same situation — I get an inordinate number of ads for Vermont cheese, classical music and weight loss deals, which seem to be ubiquitous in all of the websites that I surf.
    (For the record, I love cheese, especially from Vermont; I love classical music and jazz, pref. including brass instruments; and I have lost 75 lbs. over the last 1-1/2 yrs. through Medifast — incredible how these other user-specific ads pop up on my web searches…)
    Computers have always afforded their users the ability to track and trend information. For the record, I worry not so much about what the Federal Government is doing with all that information on me… I worry more about what corporate America is doing with much the same information.
    And then there are the possibilities of the “smart grid”… Again, I worry more about those that have an economic incentive to use or abuse this information.


    • The disturbing fact was that they seem to have found he was thinking about buying a truck from an email. I have always assumed that if you surf business web sites that they will track that, but it is unnerving to think that somebody is pulling key words out of an email to watch you.

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