The Personal Internet

January 12, 2009 at 5:38 pm | Posted in Internet, Online services, Security, Technology, Web Apps, Writing | Leave a comment

One of the curious things about “Web 3.0” is the direction some of the technology is taking. Essentially, we could say that it’s drawing the network together and creating an on-line digital repository of the world, and you.

They used to talk about ‘high tech, high touch’. How the impersonal nature of the technology lead people to compensate by doing things like be very personal quickly. The other side of this is the illusion that you are anonymous. People post all kinds of things on-line they’d never think of doing face to face, like the appalling comments some people will leave behind.

But is it anonymous? When you go to a web site with your browser, you sent it certain information so it can send you the web page you requested. The key piece is your IP address, the Internet address of your computer. Without that, it can’t find you. But with that, it knows who your ISP is and what part of the world you’re in.

Services have arisen that offer a more detailed breakdown to ensure an arriving customer is sent to the right part of the web site, like for your state or region. But have you not noticed those banner ads that address you by name and city? Your browser reveals much more about you and most web sites save that data. The browser and version you’re using, your computers operating system, even your computer log-in is often readily served.

Most sites save this information to create statistics. Its very useful to know where your customers are coming from and which browser most use to make sure your site works in it. This blog comes with a large stats section. A friend of mine uses Blogger – it shows visitors on a map.

Now, it’s true that none of this tells who you are, any more than your street address alone identifies you. Someone would have to have access to your ISP’s records to know who had that assigned IP address. But is that a big step? And there’s more layers to this.

When you go to site A, B, and C as anonymous surfer with IE7 on WinXP in Seattle and search for “mutual funds”, you’re just a statistic. But when you go to site D and order runners mailed to your address, you’ve identified yourself on-line. Now technically, that’s completely independent and site D secures their purchase records. Only a few million such records have been accidentally released. But a number of sites are now building “social” networking features in. Like having your Amazon and eBay purchases show up on your Facebook account so your friends can see. Just like with junk mail, many sites share their marketing lists. The separation blurs.

Another point is that of cookies. Cookies are small text files saved to your computer so a web site can keep track of your preferences and history. Makes surfing much easier. But some sites illegitimately look at cookies from other sites, giving them info you didn’t offer.

The other little detail to remember while the net moves closer together is that what you put on-line you do not control and cannot erase. Backups and archives are made, people save web pages, and other web sites copy information to their own. I often run into the same comments on several sites. (happens all the time to these posts) For an obvious example of that, check out Archive.org and their WaybackMachine. You can find web sites going back over 10 years. In search engines I’ve run into old pages no longer linked on the web site that the poster assumed were ‘hidden’.

The same is true of email. You never know what recipients do with it, who else has access to their computer, spyware they may have on board, plus it’s sent as plain text so can easily be ‘lifted’ on route, and people tend to discard old computers full of data. Not to mention emails sent to the wrong address (easy when programs hide the address behind the name) or forwarded, forgetting what was further down in the correspondence. Emails that make the news illustrate this well enough.

If you think staying away from log-in sites or purchasing things on-line will keep you private, think again. Many organizations are moving all their records on-line. Employees, memberships, family trees, the list goes on and on. Even without an Internet connection, gradually everyone will have an increasing presence on-line.

Not suggesting paranoia here, just don’t be under any illusion that surfing is anonymous. Or what was anonymous will stay that way. You can increase anonymity with anonymizers, sandbox your system, and take a round about way. But it only takes one mistake to play your hand, like forgetting to turn off your email signature.

Simpler to follow some basic rules. Don’t play in bad neighborhoods. Be nice. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want your boss or mother to hear.
David

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