In light of recent hacking scandals online, such as the Ashley Madison database, many Internet users are seeking ways to protect their identities and information on the web. For many of us, our online trails already extend far beyond what we may think.
Julia Angwin, author of “Dragnet Nation,” interviewed with Sarah Childress of FRONTLINE about the year she spent trying to track her online presence and disconnect from it entirely. She was shocked to find out that Google had saved all of her web searches dating back to 2006. Every friend request she’d received was stored in various databases, and over 200 data brokers, companies who collect and sell personal information, had acquired information about her.
“That was just the tip of the iceberg,” said Angwin. “[There are] people who are watching the data that comes out of my cellphone without my knowledge.”
Sites we use every day, like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, undoubtedly store information on our preferences and demographics. But what about the other sites, like Acxiom and Experian, that we might not know are tracking our online behavior? According to Angwin, these companies are closely linked to government agencies.
Most states will sell information from your voting records—like your name, address, and sometimes party affiliation—to commercial data brokers. These companies often sell the information back into the government, meaning that law enforcement and lawmakers can access it. The FBI and NSA use this data about us to investigate national security threats, solve crime, and potentially even to predict crime before it occurs, according to Hanni Fakhoury, a senior attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation who focuses on criminal law and privacy cases.
The harm of this, explained Angwin, is that information is power.
“If you’re going on to a car dealership lot, you don’t want the guy to know your income and what models you’ve been looking at, and what other deals you’ve been offered at other dealerships,” said Angwin.
This information can be shared in a multitude of ways beyond government use, sometimes to the people you interact with daily. In “Dragnet Nation,” Angwin tells a story of a woman whose sexual orientation was outed to her coworkers when they saw gay and lesbian ads pop up on her Facebook page.
So how are we supposed to protect ourselves from misuse of our personal data? Angwin, in a radical effort to completely go off the grid, unfriended every Facebook friend, deleted her LinkedIn and her Twitter, and put a sticker over her webcam so she couldn’t be observed by hackers through her computer. She even went so far as to cover her cellphone in tinfoil, which allegedly blocks the signal, although she admits it was a rather extreme move.
There are, however, plenty of simple actions one can take to reduce the amount they are tracked online. Kara Brandeisky, a reporter and producer at Money.com chatted with Paul Stephens, Director of Policy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse to find the best ways to protect privacy online.
The first step, Stephens said, was to delete cookies from your browser. In Google Chrome, this action is under the “Tools” menu; in Safari, it can be found under “Preferences”.
There are also privacy settings on most smartphones that limit data brokers’ ability to see what you’re browsing on the go. Some people opt to use a search engine called DuckDuckGo, which, unlike Google, promises not to collect personal information.
Ultimately, experts recommend that you check your privacy settings on social media regularly and carefully read the terms and conditions for any site you sign up for. Users on Ashley Madison could have been savvy web browsers, but hey, maybe karma got the best of that situation.
Sources: “Podcast: How to Protect Yourself (and Your Data) Online” by Michelle Mizner on PBS.org and “7 Ways to Protect Your Privacy Online” by Kara Brandeisky on Time.com