“Spynet”, that’s what I like to call the internet these days because pretty much everything we do on it is monitored or censored in one way or another. These activities that we carry out on the internet are also stored after being monitored, then the data is mined, analysed and studied even further. The resulting information is used to create a filter bubble of different sorts depending on the internet profile that is created for you. Many people do not even know that they are living in some sort of filter bubble on the internet. This filter bubble was created at the cost of our privacy. Our privacy as we know it on the internet does not exist any more. What we have today is an illusion of privacy. So how did the internet lose its innocence and transformed into the “Spynet”?

Profit, every organisation wants to make profit and to make profit in today’s business world, they need to gain competitive advantage over their rivals. One of the ways organisations gain competitive advantage over their rivals is to have as much information as possible about their target customer base. Knowledge as they say is power and that knowledge on the internet comes in the form of data, raw unadulterated data. How do these organisations mine these data from internet users? Through numerous means, the most popular means being cookies. Every organisation want to dip their fingers into the cookie jar. cookies are very useful in frequently used information like usernames, passwords etc. But they also store many other kinds of data and meta data like browser details and IP addresses that could even be used to uniquely identify an individual. Other means of extracting data from internet users include the use of spywares, adwares, botnets, viruses etc. Some organizations hire hackers to do the dirty jobs for them by deploying spywares to gather data or purchasing the data a hacker has already obtained. Other organisations deploy bloatwares and adwares on new computers or as an addition to a free software or update. There are also the free service providing organisations like Google, Yahoo or Facebook for example who regularly scan and access their customers information on their servers and use them for self-serving purposes like target driven adverts. Basically, the cost of these free services is your data.

Getting rid of and preventing spywares, bloatwares, adwares and viruses that extract information from internet users is fairly easy. There are numerous free and commercial anti-spyware and anti-adware systems on the internet and they generally work like anti-virus systems in the sense that they have a “brain-file” of know spywares and adwares to look out for. But they are only effective if you update them regularly. Spywares though, can be a bit difficult to get rid of as their components make use of the same web services as web browsers and carry out their operations using cookies, thereby making it difficult to detect with firewalls and anti-viruses. But through the combination of a content filtering software, anti-spywares and a robust operating system like Linux, internet users can go a long way in protecting themselves against spywares. Protecting oneself against being spied upon by organisations who use cookies and have access to your data on their servers is a whole different ball game.

Cookies make the whole browsing experience more pleasant for internet users, but organisations make use of the data gathered from cookies used on their website to study the behaviours of its visitors. Most websites on the internet use cookies and many of them inform their visitors of the use of cookies often prompting them to accept or change the cookie settings on the site. But for certain site visitors, they can’t be bothered about some cookie settings they don’t understand, so they click on the accept button just to get rid of the annoying banner floating on the site. The information gathered from these cookies are used to create profiles which are then used to carry out practices such as targeting certain visitors with higher prices based on their location or even their computer information. For example, a certain website targeted users of Mac computers by showing them higher hotel prices than those shown to PC users. Decisions like these are reached after studying peoples’ online habits like the links they click on, videos they watch, pictures they like, articles they read, stuff they buy etc. coupled with their browser and computer information. Sites like Google for example save their users’ search terms together with other cookie related information and use it to build different profiles that are then used to create filter bubbles for each user. Basically, Google shows its users, tailored search results based on their search history and other profile information. So, they are limited to what Google thinks they like and every other information gets demoted. Google assures its users that their information is safe on its servers but these information can be legally requested or even hacked and used against them. You can of course opt out from the filter bubble or personalised search as Google calls it.

Certain ISPs also spy on their customers’ online activities and use the information obtained to tailor specific adverts to their customers. They do this by using a method called DNS hijacking or redirection and use it to display adverts and collect statistics about their customers. The ISPs basically redirect the DNS servers that they provide for their customers to use on their network to their affiliate’s IP addresses. The ISP’s affiliates now serve up adverts to the ISP’s customers, gather statistics about them and then pay the ISP a certain percentage of the profits. For many internet users, this is quite hard to detect and even when they detect it and report to their ISPs, not much can be done unless they can take it even further. But you might not have the time and resources to do that. Alternatively, you can always change your DNS server address to a trusted Open DNS server address and carry out these steps.

There are a couple of measures one can take to regain ones privacy on the “spynet”. These measures might affect your whole browsing experience but I guess it is a worthy price to pay for privacy. These measures include modifying your privacy settings on your browser and installing various tracking and advert blocking plugins. You should also consider using a Tor browser bundle or Syme, an Encrypted social network service to provide even more privacy and security when you browse the “Spynet”. These measures aren’t full proof but they go a long way to protect your privacy on the “Spynet”.

Okey Chima

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