Who’s watching you online?

How will you react if you are told that people are stalking you to know what you have been shopping for lately, or the places you visit to buy your things?


This is exactly what’s happening with you, your family, friends and everybody visiting the deep dark digital woods, the Internet. And surprisingly, no one seems to be making any fuss about it.


While we realise the Internet is not exactly private it hasn’t always been like this; we had less covetous people before. So what happened? What went wrong?


At first, we thought of blaming spyware and their vicious and corrupt programmers. But, when you look closely, most of the services we use today have been doing the same; and your leap of faith might just translate into you jumping into a ravine when you discover that your own government is doing the same. 


Surprised, huh? Didn't hink your government would ever do this to you? Well, first of all, this is not new; back in the early 1980s in Eastern Germany, if you happened to own a typewriter, you had to get it registered by the government. This helped them track you and be ensured that you weren’t up to anything suspicious or writing anything against them. But that was 1980; today, it’s almost 2013. Why should we bother?


Today, if you buy a laser printer from any popular manufacturer and print a page, you will discover a few unusual dots – sort of like tiny yellow circles imprinted in a peculiar pattern – when you look at it through a magnifying glass; this technique is known as steganography. These patterns make that paper, and the printer from which it has been printed, unique. And in those tiny dots, the serial number of the printer and the timestamp is concealed.  

Is that a secret code?

Is that a secret code?



When it comes to services such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox etc., on which we rely upon every single day, we know for sure that they are free, but here's a famous quote by Andrew Lewis: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold."


These companies make money, in fact millions, through advertising. We use their incredible service and in return, they roll out a few ads. Sounds like a fair deal. In the last couple of decades, advertising industries have implemented several techniques to make the ads more relevant and target people. In his TED talk, Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs spoke about one such technique, known as behaviour tracking, and its proliferation across the web. These are possible with the help of cookies. Cookies are not really bad; they have their own importance. In fact, it is because of cookies we are able to browse the web so conveniently. They save our password and remember our preferences for every page for as long as we don’t log out from the website; hence, we are not required to sign in and type our credentials every time we go to some page. The trick is third-party cookies keep an eye on our browsing history even after we have logged out and get to know more about us, what we browse, and what we buy from online stores. They sense a pattern and later they cater us with more relevant ads. 


Gary explained about the Collusion project that was recently introduced by Firefox to track those spying cookies and trackers. 

Tracking the spies

Tracking the spies



The above graph shows us such trackers. When I was writing this article, I took a five minute break to surf a few websites for which I haven’t signed up yet, and you can see in the graph (grey and red balloons) that they have already connected to me. 


It can really help these services team and come up with the best stuff for us, but at the same time, it can shake our lives if done without our permission, which is exactly what is happening to us. 


Last year, Google made $37 billion and Facebook made some $3.5 billion just through ads. It’s no surprise that these websites too want to know about our interests. In 2011, a blogger Nik Cubrilovic pointed out that Facebook was using some persistent cookies that could track web activities of its users even after they had logged out. Facebook was quick to address this issue and reassured its users and fixed the bug within two days. Later, the same blogger investigated and found that Facebook has been working behind the ‘Like’ function of the page (That is, even after a user had logged out of Facebook, if he visits any other site they can still use the Facebook widget in other websites). Facebook blamed a bug for this malfunction. Although Facebook fixed that bug very soon, it is the attitude of Facebook towards its users' privacy that is to be questioned. This didn’t stop there; a month ago, Facebook changed the default user email ID of all its users without even asking them. If you haven’t noticed it yet, go and check out what email ID of yours has been shared with the world. 


In July this year, another story emerged that revealed that Facebook maintains a ‘Data Science department’, which analyses its users’ data and looks for a pattern for later use. And Facebook is not the only social networking website that maintains a dark side; Twitter too was recently in the news for selling info to a data-research company DataSift. Following the pattern, last February, WSJ reported that Google had been tracking users of Apple's mobile browser Safari and displayed ads even if the users had enabled the ‘do not track’ setting. Google was fined $22.5 million for it. Recently, Google came out with Google Now (Siri’s competitor) for the Android devices, intending to learn about your behaviour – the way you live, where you live (location data), places where you usually shop. It then filters your ads and search results accordingly so that it could cater results that are more relevant for you. It is a brilliant innovation, but again, a debate whether this invades your privacy or not can be held.


These examples show us how easily our privacy is being compromised. Thanks to many third party security firms, we now have many solutions including ‘do not track’ extensions available for all the browsers for each platform. Many web browsers, including Firefox and Chrome, have extended a feature in their settings that allows its users to opt out of such a privacy compromise. But recently, Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), a digital rights group that campaigns against invasions of civil liberties, illustrated how the ‘do not track’ plus protection can be fooled and users’ devices can be identified. Thankfully though, many privacy concerned groups are standing up, fighting and pressurising their respective governments to make laws to protect their privacy. As a result, EU Law has put in place the e-Privacy Directive, stating that no user information should be tracked without their consent.


It is high time we realise that our online privacy and security is as important as the privacy and security of our real life. Privacy is one of our fundamental rights, and it should not be held up for discussion. While it may seem that the government is not really going to harm its citizens, and this ad tactic is a reasonable price we need to pay for the incredible services provided by Facebook and Twitter, the real problem arises when this information gets in the wrong hands. In January 2010, Google reported that it has been a victim of a sophisticated cyber-attack, which later were confirmed to be coming from China. Later, Wikileaks revealed that email IDs and other critical information belonging to human rights activists, journalists and many US senior officials were accessed, leaving the critical information such as their location, conversation with their colleagues and officials in jeopardy.


Sony, US Bureau of Justice, NASA and many other organisations have been hacked dozens of times by Hacktivist groups like Anonymous and LulzSec. Many ISPs, including Verizon, reported that more than 100 million users’ data had been compromised. These groups have shown the world how weak the security systems of even the most secured firms are. Although the motivation behind these attacks is usually good, it shows the ease with which they seem to be able to break into such secured systems. 

Published Date: Nov 07, 2012 19:50 PM | Updated Date: Nov 07, 2012 19:50 PM