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The State of Online Privacy

Internet privacy is a huge deal; here’s the present standing of the tech world on the issue.

Learn about the latest user concerns regarding privacy and what companies are doing to address these issues.

Online privacy is a subset of data privacy and a concept referring to the right to personal privacy regarding the displaying, storing, repurposing, and provision of information pertaining to oneself by way of the internet.

Although concerns about online privacy have been considered from the beginning of large scale computer sharing over the internet, it has only recently become a greater and growing concern for most people. Online privacy often has to do with personally identifying information (PII) such as age, physical address, and name, that can be used to identify a specific person. Online privacy can also entail information outside of PII, such as a visitor’s behavior on a website.

Some believe that Internet privacy has already been compromised to the point of no return and that it no longer exists. However, privacy, including online privacy, protects people from abuse of power such as unjustified surveillance.

Some of the risks to online privacy include the following:

  • HTTP cookies, also known as browser cookies, web cookies or Internet cookies, are small pieces of data sent from a website server and stored on the user’s computer by the web browser.
  • Flash cookies, also known as local shared objects, are pieces of data from websites which use Adobe Flash sent to and stored on a user computer.
  • Zombie cookies are HTTP cookies that are recreated after they are deleted. Evercookie is an application program interface based on JavaScript and created by Samy Kamkar that produces extremely persistent zombie cookies in a web browser that are intentionally hard to delete. Evercookies are usually used in anti-fraud operations and in advertising.
  • Device fingerprinting is a relatively new technological technique that uses the distinct characteristics of computers and mobile devices to identify electronic device use.
  • Photographs on the Internet can also be used to identify people, and programs such as Google Street View have been the subject of some scrutiny.

Search engines that have the ability to track a user’s searches can also be a threat to personal online privacy, but there are browsers, such as DuckDuckGo, MetaGer, and Yacy, that make privacy a central component as their software. Other apps and software such as Disconnect.me and Startpage.com counter privacy concerns by disrupting typical tracking procedures.

The increased use of social profiling and the submission of personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, is a growing concern for online privacy advocates. Internet service providers, or ISPs must also collect some information about their users to provide Internet connectivity, but they also have the ability to observe a user’s activities on the Internet, although they are usually banned from doing so for business, ethical, legal, and technical reasons.

HTML5, the latest version of the Hypertext Markup Language specification elevates some privacy concerns while also adding a few tools to enhance the privacy of users.

The rapid accumulation of very large amounts of information is known as Big Data, and is carried out by companies such as Google and Facebook. This data is then stored on massive server databases.

Other potential risks to online privacy include: web bugs, social engineering, malware, spyware, pharming, phishing, malicious proxy servers, the faulty WebRTC protocol that is currently enabled by default in major browser including Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox. Human error threats to privacy include: use of weak passwords, repetition of login information, allowing unused accounts to remain active, and the use of vulnerable, out-of-date software.

The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) has certainly not alleviated any fears about online privacy as an increasing number of people bring devices into their homes or businesses that are vulnerable to cyber attacks and that can record and film them without their knowledge. Just as with search engines and social media, people are now wondering what companies like Amazon are doing with the audio and video information that is being transmitted to these devices.

Startups such as Omlet and Wickr aim to facilitate services such mobile messaging and social media networking with a focus on protecting users’ personal information.

The continuously increasing number of connected devices means more points of contact for hackers, and while trust in established tech companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft remains relatively steady, consumer confidence regarding how companies handle their private data is at a very low level. Companies need to start taking their users’ online privacy seriously if they want to survive in the long run.