I have accounts on Gmail, Yahoo mail, Facebook and LinkedIn. Like many people, I have found it convenient to stay logged in to my online accounts with my personal computer. While on LinkedIn a few weeks ago, I was “recommended” a business associate who I had not been in contact with for nearly 10 years. This alarmed me. How did LinkedIn make this association? So, I looked back through my Yahoo mail and found that I had corresponded with this business associate in 2001, via Yahoo mail.
Several weeks later, I was recommended a “friend” on Facebook who was a person I had talked to from a Craigslist post more than two years ago. It was related to a gold mining operation in Nevada, so recognized the individual right away. A positive conversation had ended without any further business relationship. However, what I found so alarming was that all of my correspondence with this individual had long since been “deleted.” There was no physical evidence of a relationship, but Facebook had mined the information from data not even available to me!
As a computer software professional, I have written applications to interface with Facebook data. There is a lot of information I can obtain about a person who is logged into Facebook and visits a web site application I have control of. I assume the other Internet software providers have similar data available to share.
The method of tracking online is referred to as “cookies.” Tracking cookies are set on your computer by nearly every commercial web site you visit. The tracking cookies from these web sites can be used by other web sites to find out information about your activity and who you are. If you are logged into a service provider, they can share information about you, without your knowledge.
While there is little you can do to ensure your online privacy, there are steps you can take to protect yourself. First of all, realize that ALL correspondence done on the “free” email providers is kept in a database indefinitely. Deleting it does not physically remove it. And in addition to that, consumers need to realize that if you choose to use a smart phone to browse the Internet, send/receive emails, send/receive text messages, etcetera, you are also giving out location data and even more precise personal data. Android-based phones are the most heinous offenders in the tracking of personal information. And don’t think just because you have a server-based, private email, that you are not being tracked. Any email you send or receive to users of one of these “free” email providers is also being stored in a database
The second, and most effective, way to help protect your privacy is to resist the urge to let your browser keep track of all your login information, and make certain all tracking cookies and other data are removed every time you close your browser. All browsers have a setting which claims to delete browsing data on exit. Just keep in mind that there is always some data stored, hidden on the computer, which will not be deleted. In Microsoft Internet Explorer, you can select Tools -> Internet Options and in the “Settings” for browsing history – you can choose to delete browsing history on exit. Each browser has different settings. Cookies are a convenience that presents a double-edged sword. Keeping cookies means that wherever you go on the Internet, providers can see information from your browser and share data with other providers.
Recently published information revealed that Google is processing large amounts of law enforcement warrants for personal data. Many of the warrants include information about people completely unrelated to any crime – People who have merely corresponded with an individual who is under some sort of surveillance. Don’t think that just because you live a clean and responsible life that your email and personal data have not crossed some line of surveillance. And just keep in mind that everything you do online can be tracked, stored and exchanged with others indefinitely without your knowledge or permission.
Thanks again to the SurvivalBlog editors for providing this terrific source of information.
Cheers, – Sheila in Cyberland