Internet privacy involves the right or mandate of personal privacy concerning the storing, repurposing, provision to third parties, and displaying of information pertaining to oneself via Internet. Internet privacy is a subset of data privacy. Privacy concerns have been articulated from the beginnings of large-scale computer sharing.
Privacy can entail either personally identifiable information (PII) or non-PII information such as a site visitor’s behavior on a website. PII refers to any information that can be used to identify an individual. For example, age and physical address alone could identify who an individual is without explicitly disclosing their name, as these two factors are unique enough to identify a specific person typically. Other forms of PII may soon include GPS tracking data used by apps, as the daily commute and routine information can be enough to identify an individual.
It has been suggested that the “appeal of online services is to broadcast personal information on purpose.” On the other hand, in his essay “The Value of Privacy”, security expert Bruce Schneier says, “Privacy protects us from abuses by those in power, even if we’re doing nothing wrong at the time of surveillance.”
Levels of privacy
Internet and digital privacy are viewed differently from traditional expectations of privacy. Internet privacy is primarily concerned with protecting user information. Law Professor Jerry Kang explains that the term privacy expresses space, decision, and information. In terms of space, individuals have an expectation that their physical spaces (e.g. homes, cars) not be intruded. Privacy within the realm of decision is best illustrated by the landmark case Roe v. Wade. Lastly, information privacy is in regards to the collection of user information from a variety of sources, which produces great discussion.
In the United States, the 1997 Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF) created under President Clinton defined information privacy as “an individual’s claim to control the terms under which personal information — information identifiable to the individual — is acquired, disclosed, and used.” At the end of the 1990s, with the rise of the internet, it became clear that governments, companies, and other organizations would need to abide by new rules to protect individuals’ privacy. With the rise of the internet and mobile networks internet privacy is a daily concern for users.
People with only a casual concern for Internet privacy need not achieve total anonymity. Internet users may protect their privacy through controlled disclosure of personal information. The revelation of IP addresses, non-personally-identifiable profiling, and similar information might become acceptable trade-offs for the convenience that users could otherwise lose using the workarounds needed to suppress such details rigorously. On the other hand, some people desire much stronger privacy. In that case, they may try to achieve Internet anonymity to ensure privacy — use of the Internet without giving any third parties the ability to link the Internet activities to personally-identifiable information of the Internet user. In order to keep their information private, people need to be careful with what they submit to and look at online. When filling out forms and buying merchandise, information is tracked and because it was not private, some companies send Internet users spam and advertising on similar products.
There are also several governmental organizations that protect an individual’s privacy and anonymity on the Internet, to a point. In an article presented by the FTC, in October 2011, a number of pointers were brought to attention that helps an individual internet user avoid possible identity theft and other cyber-attacks. Preventing or limiting the usage of Social Security numbers online, being wary and respectful of emails including spam messages, being mindful of personal financial details, creating and managing strong passwords, and intelligent web-browsing behaviors are recommended, among others.
Posting things on the Internet can be harmful or expose people to malicious attacks. Some information posted on the Internet persists for decades, depending on the terms of service, and privacy policies of particular services offered online. This can include comments written on blogs, pictures, and websites, such as Facebook and Twitter. It is absorbed into cyberspace and once it is posted, anyone can potentially find it and access it. Some employers may research a potential employee by searching online for the details of their online behaviors, possibly affecting the outcome of the success of the candidate.
Risks to Internet privacy
Companies are hired to track which websites people visit and then use the information, for instance by sending advertising based on one’s web browsing history. There are many ways in which people can divulge their personal information, for instance by use of “social media” and by sending bank and credit card information to various websites. Moreover, directly observed behavior, such as browsing logs, search queries, or contents of the Facebook profile can be automatically processed to infer potentially more intrusive details about an individual, such as sexual orientation, political and religious views, race, substance use, intelligence, and personality.
Those concerned about Internet privacy often cite a number of privacy risks — events that can compromise privacy — which may be encountered through online activities. These range from the gathering of statistics on users to more malicious acts such as the spreading of spyware and the exploitation of various forms of bugs (software faults).
Several social networking websites try to protect the personal information of their subscribers, as well as provide a warning through a privacy and terms agreement. On Facebook, for example, privacy settings are available to all registered users: they can block certain individuals from seeing their profile, they can choose their “friends”, and they can limit who has access to their pictures and videos. Privacy settings are also available on other social networking websites such as Google Plus and Twitter. The user can apply such settings when providing personal information on the Internet. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has created a set of guides so that users may more easily use these privacy settings and Zebra Crossing: an easy-to-use digital safety checklist is a volunteer-maintained online resource.
In late 2007 Facebook launched the Beacon program in which user rental records were released to the public for friends to see. Many people were enraged by this breach of privacy, and the Lane v. Facebook, Inc. case ensued.
Children and adolescents often use the Internet (including social media) in ways that risk their privacy: a cause for growing concern among parents. Young people also may not realize that all their information and browsing can and may be tracked while visiting a particular site and that it is up to them to protect their own privacy. They must be informed about all these risks. For example, on Twitter, threats include shortened links that may lead to potentially harmful websites or content. Email threats include email scams and attachments that persuade users to install malware and disclose personal information. On Torrent sites, threats include malware hiding in video, music, and software downloads. When using a smartphone, threats include geolocation, meaning that one’s phone can detect where one’s location and post it online for all to see. Users can protect themselves by updating virus protection, using security settings, downloading patches, installing a firewall, screening email, shutting down spyware, controlling cookies, using encryption, fending off browser hijackers, and blocking pop-ups.
However most people have little idea how to go about doing these things. Many businesses hire professionals to take care of these issues, but most individuals can only do their best to educate themselves.
In 1998, the Federal Trade Commission in the US considered the lack of privacy for children on the internet and created the Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). COPPA limits the options which gather information from children and created warning labels if potential harmful information or content was presented. In 2000, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) was developed to implement Internet safety policies. Policies required taking technology protection measures that can filter or block children’s Internet access to pictures that are harmful to them. Schools and libraries need to follow these requirements in order to receive discounts from E-rate program. These laws, awareness campaigns, parental and adult supervision strategies, and Internet filters can all help to make the Internet safer for children around the world.
The privacy concerns of Internet users pose a serious challenge (Dunkan, 1996; Till, 1997). Due to the advancement in technology, access to the internet has become easier to use from any device at any time. However, the increase of access from multiple sources increases the amount of access points for an attack. In an online survey, approximately seven out of ten individuals responded that what worries them most is their privacy over the Internet, rather than over the mail or phone. Internet privacy is slowly but surely becoming a threat, as a person’s personal data may slip into the wrong hands if passed around through the Web.
Internet protocol (IP) addresses
There is ambiguity about how private IP addresses are. The Court of Justice of the European Union has ruled they need to be treated as personally identifiable information if the website tracking them, or a third party like a service provider, knows the name or street address of the IP address holder, which would be true for static IP addresses, not for dynamic addresses. California regulations say IP addresses need to be treated as personal information if the business itself, not a third party, can link them to name and street address. An Alberta court ruled that police can obtain the IP addresses and the names and addresses associated with them, without a search warrant; the Calgary, Alberta, police found IP addresses which initiated online crimes, and the service provider gave police the names and addresses associated with those IP addresses.
In the past, websites have not generally made the user explicitly aware of the storing of cookies, however tracking cookies and especially third-party tracking cookies are commonly used as ways to compile long-term records of individuals’ browsing histories — a privacy concern that prompted European and US lawmakers to take action in 2011. Cookies can also have implications for computer forensics. In past years, most computer users were not completely aware of cookies, but users have become conscious of possible detrimental effects of Internet cookies: a recent study done has shown that 58% of users have deleted cookies from their computer at least once, and that 39% of users delete cookies from their computer every month. Since cookies are advertisers’ main way of targeting potential customers, and some customers are deleting cookies, some advertisers started to use persistent Flash cookies and zombie cookies, but modern browsers and anti-malware software can now block or detect and remove such cookies.
The original developers of cookies intended that only the website that originally distributed cookies to users could retrieve them, therefore returning only data already possessed by the website. However, in practice programmers can circumvent this restriction. Possible consequences include:
- the placing of a personally-identifiable tag in a browser to facilitate web profiling (see below), or
- use of cross-site scripting or other techniques to steal information from a user’s cookies.
Cookies do have benefits. One is that for websites that one frequently visits that require a password, cookies may allow a user to not have to sign in every time. A cookie can also track one’s preferences to show them websites that might interest them. Cookies make more websites free to use without any type of payment. Some of these benefits are also seen as negative. For example, one of the most common ways of theft is hackers taking one’s username and password that a cookie saves. While many sites are free, they sell their space to advertisers. These ads, which are personalized to one’s likes, can sometimes freeze one’s computer or cause annoyance. Cookies are mostly harmless except for third-party cookies. These cookies are not made by the website itself but by web banner advertising companies. These third-party cookies are dangerous because they take the same information that regular cookies do, such as browsing habits and frequently visited websites, but then they share this information with other companies.
Cookies are often associated with pop-up windows because these windows are often, but not always, tailored to a person’s preferences. These windows are an irritation because the close button may be strategically hidden in an unlikely part of the screen. In the worst cases, these pop-up ads can take over the screen and while one tries to close them, they can take one to another unwanted website.
Cookies are seen so negatively because they are not understood and go unnoticed while someone is simply surfing the internet. The idea that every move one makes while on the internet is being watched, would frighten most users.
Some users choose to disable cookies in their web browsers. Such an action can reduce some privacy risks, but may severely limit or prevent the functionality of many websites. All significant web browsers have this disabling ability built-in, with no external program required. As an alternative, users may frequently delete any stored cookies. Some browsers (such as Mozilla Firefox and Opera) offer the option to clear cookies automatically whenever the user closes the browser. A third option involves allowing cookies in general, but preventing their abuse. There are also a host of wrapper applications that will redirect cookies and cache data to some other location. Concerns exist that the privacy benefits of deleting cookies have been over-stated.
The process of profiling (also known as “tracking”) assembles and analyzes several events, each attributable to a single originating entity, in order to gain information (especially patterns of activity) relating to the originating entity. Some organizations engage in the profiling of people’s web browsing, collecting the URLs of sites visited. The resulting profiles can potentially link with information that personally identifies the individual who did the browsing.
Some web-oriented marketing-research organizations may use this practice legitimately, for example: in order to construct profiles of “typical internet users”. Such profiles, which describe average trends of large groups of internet users rather than of actual individuals, can then prove useful for market analysis. Although the aggregate data does not constitute a privacy violation, some people believe that the initial profiling does.
Profiling becomes a more contentious privacy issue when data-matching associates the profile of an individual with personally-identifiable information of the individual.
Governments and organizations may set up honeypot websites – featuring controversial topics – with the purpose of attracting and tracking unwary people. This constitutes a potential danger for individuals.
When some users choose to disable HTTP cookies to reduce privacy risks as noted, new types of cookies were invented: since cookies are advertisers’ main way of targeting potential customers, and some customers were deleting cookies, some advertisers started to use persistent Flash cookies and zombie cookies. In a 2009 study, Flash cookies were found to be a popular mechanism for storing data on the top 100 most visited sites. Another 2011 study of social media found that, “Of the top 100 web sites, 31 had at least one overlap between HTTP and Flash cookies.” However, modern browsers and anti-malware software can now block or detect and remove such cookies.
Flash cookies, also known as local shared objects, work the same ways as normal cookies and are used by the Adobe Flash Player to store information at the user’s computer. They exhibit a similar privacy risk as normal cookies, but are not as easily blocked, meaning that the option in most browsers to not accept cookies does not affect Flash cookies. One way to view and control them is with browser extensions or add-ons. Flash cookies are unlike HTTP cookies in a sense that they are not transferred from the client back to the server. Web browsers read and write these cookies and can track any data by web usage.
Although browsers such as Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3 have added a “Privacy Browsing” setting, they still allow Flash cookies to track the user and operate fully. However, the Flash player browser plugin can be disabled or uninstalled, and Flash cookies can be disabled on a per-site or global basis. Adobe’s Flash and (PDF) Reader are not the only browser plugins whose past security defects have allowed spyware or malware to be installed: there have also been problems with Oracle’s Java.
Some anti-fraud companies have realized the potential of evercookies to protect against and catch cyber criminals. These companies already hide small files in several places on the perpetrator’s computer but hackers can usually easily get rid of these. The advantage to evercookies is that they resist deletion and can rebuild themselves.
There is controversy over where the line should be drawn on the use of this technology. Cookies store unique identifiers on a person’s computer that are used to predict what one wants. Many advertisement companies want to use this technology to track what their customers are looking at online. This is known as online behavioral advertising which allows advertisers to keep track of the consumer’s website visits to personalize and target advertisements. Evercookies enable advertisers to continue to track a customer regardless of whether their cookies are deleted or not. Some companies are already using this technology but the ethics are still being widely debated.
Anonymizer “nevercookies” are part of a free Firefox plugin that protects against evercookies. This plugin extends Firefox’s private browsing mode so that users will be completely protected from evercookies. Nevercookies eliminate the entire manual deletion process while keeping the cookies users want like browsing history and saved account information.
A device fingerprint is information collected about the software and hardware of a remote computing device for the purpose of identifying individual devices even when persistent cookies (and also zombie cookies) can’t be read or stored in the browser, the client IP address is hidden, and even if one switches to another browser on the same device. This may allow a service provider to detect and prevent identity theft and credit card fraud, but also to compile long-term records of individuals’ browsing histories even when they’re attempting to avoid tracking, raising a major concern for internet privacy advocates.
Third Party Requests
Third Party Requests are HTTP data connections from client devices to addresses in the web which are different than the website the user is currently surfing on. Many alternative tracking technologies to cookies are based on third party requests. Their importance has increased during the last years and even accelerated after Mozilla (2019), Apple (2020), and google (2022) have announced to block third party cookies by default. Third requests may be used for embedding external content (e.g. advertisements) or for loading external resources and functions (e.g. images, icons, fonts, captchas, JQuery resources and many others). Dependent on the type of resource loaded, such requests may enable third parties to execute a device fingerprint or place any other kind of marketing tag. Irrespective of the intention, such requests do often disclose information that may be sensitive, and they can be used for tracking either directly or in combination with other personally identifiable information . Most of the requests disclose referrer details that reveal the full URL of the actually visited website. In addition to the referrer URL further information may be transmitted by the use of other request methods such as HTTP POST. Since 2018 Mozilla partially mitigates the risk of third party requests by cutting the referrer information when using the private browsing mode. However, personal information may still be revealed to the requested address in other areas of the HTTP-header.
Photographs on the Internet
Today many people have digital cameras and post their photographs online, for example street photography practitioners do so for artistic purposes and social documentary photography practitioners do so to document people in everyday life. The people depicted in these photos might not want them to appear on the Internet. Police arrest photos, considered public record in many jurisdictions, are often posted on the Internet by online mug shot publishing sites.
Some organizations attempt to respond to this privacy-related concern. For example, the 2005 Wikimania conference required that photographers have the prior permission of the people in their pictures, albeit this made it impossible for photographers to practice candid photography and doing the same in a public place would violate the photographers’ free speech rights. Some people wore a “no photos” tag to indicate they would prefer not to have their photo taken (see photo).
Face recognition technology can be used to gain access to a person’s private data, according to a new study. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University combined image scanning, cloud computing and public profiles from social network sites to identify individuals in the offline world. Data captured even included a user’s social security number. Experts have warned of the privacy risks faced by the increased merging of online and offline identities. The researchers have also developed an ‘augmented reality’ mobile app that can display personal data over a person’s image captured on a smartphone screen. Since these technologies are widely available, users’ future identities may become exposed to anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection. Researchers believe this could force a reconsideration of future attitudes to privacy.
Google Street View
Google Street View, released in the U.S. in 2007, is currently the subject of an ongoing debate about possible infringement on individual privacy. In an article entitled “Privacy, Reconsidered: New Representations, Data Practices, and the Geoweb”, Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski (2011) argue that Google Street View “facilitate[s] identification and disclosure with more immediacy and less abstraction.” The medium through which Street View disseminates information, the photograph, is very immediate in the sense that it can potentially provide direct information and evidence about a person’s whereabouts, activities, and private property. Moreover, the technology’s disclosure of information about a person is less abstract in the sense that, if photographed, a person is represented on Street View in a virtual replication of his or her own real-life appearance. In other words, the technology removes abstractions of a person’s appearance or that of his or her personal belongings – there is an immediate disclosure of the person and object, as they visually exist in real life. Although Street View began to blur license plates and people’s faces in 2008, the technology is faulty and does not entirely ensure against accidental disclosure of identity and private property.
Elwood and Leszczynski note that “many of the concerns leveled at Street View stem from situations where its photograph-like images were treated as definitive evidence of an individual’s involvement in particular activities.” In one instance, Ruedi Noser, a Swiss politician, barely avoided public scandal when he was photographed in 2009 on Google Street View walking with a woman who was not his wife – the woman was actually his secretary. Similar situations occur when Street View provides high-resolution photographs – and photographs hypothetically offer compelling objective evidence. But as the case of the Swiss politician illustrates, even supposedly compelling photographic evidence is sometimes subject to gross misinterpretation. This example further suggests that Google Street View may provide opportunities for privacy infringement and harassment through public dissemination of the photographs. Google Street View does, however, blur or remove photographs of individuals and private property from image frames if the individuals request further blurring and/or removal of the images. This request can be submitted, for review, through the “report a problem” button that is located on the bottom left-hand side of every image window on Google Street View, however, Google has made attempts to report a problem difficult by disabling the “Why are you reporting the street view” icon.
Search engines have the ability to track a user’s searches. Personal information can be revealed through searches by the user’s computer, account, or IP address being linked to the search terms used. Search engines have claimed a necessity to retain such information in order to provide better services, protect against security pressure, and protect against fraud. A search engine takes all of its users and assigns each one a specific ID number. Those in control of the database often keep records of where on the internet each member has traveled to. AOL’s system is one example. AOL has a database 21 million members deep, each with their own specific ID number. The way that AOLSearch is set up, however, allows for AOL to keep records of all the websites visited by any given member. Even though the true identity of the user isn’t known, a full profile of a member can be made just by using the information stored by AOLSearch. By keeping records of what people query through AOLSearch, the company is able to learn a great deal about them without knowing their names.
Search engines also are able to retain user information, such as location and time spent using the search engine, for up to ninety days. Most search engine operators use the data to get a sense of which needs must be met in certain areas of their field. People working in the legal field are also allowed to use information collected from these search engine websites. The Google search engine is given as an example of a search engine that retains the information entered for a period of three-fourths of a year before it becomes obsolete for public usage. Yahoo! follows in the footsteps of Google in the sense that it also deletes user information after a period of ninety days. Other search engines such as Ask! search engine has promoted a tool of “AskEraser” which essentially takes away personal information when requested. Some changes made to internet search engines included that of Google’s search engine. Beginning in 2009, Google began to run a new system where the Google search became personalized. The item that is searched and the results that are shown remembers previous information that pertains to the individual. Google search engine not only seeks what is searched but also strives to allow the user to feel like the search engine recognizes their interests. This is achieved by using online advertising. A system that Google uses to filter advertisements and search results that might interest the user is by having a ranking system that tests relevancy that include observation of the behavior users exude while searching on Google. Another function of search engines is the predictability of location. Search engines are able to predict where one’s location is currently by locating IP Addresses and geographical locations.
Some solutions to being able to protect user privacy on the internet can include programs such as “Rapleaf” which is a website that has a search engine that allows users to make all of one’s search information and personal information private. Other websites that also give this option to their users are Facebook and Amazon.
Laws and regulations
Global privacy policies
European General Data protection regulation
As per June 2020, typical cookie implementations are not compliant to this regulation, and other practices such as device fingerprinting, cross-website-logins  or 3rd party-requests are typically not disclosed, even though many opinions consider such methods in scope of the GDPR. The reason for this controversary is the e Privacy-Directive 2009/136/EC which is still unchanged in force. An updated version of this directive, formulated as ePrivacy Regulation, shall enlarge the scope from cookies only to any type of tracking method. It shall furthermore cover any kind of electronic communication channels such as Skype or WhatsApp. The new ePrivacy-Regulation was planned to come in force together with the GDPR, but as per July 2020 it was still under review. Some people assume that lobbying is the reason for this massive delay.
Irrespective of the pending ePrivacy-Regulation, the European High Court has decided in October 2019 (case C-673/17) that the current law is not fulfilled if the disclosed information in the cookie disclaimer is imprecise, or if the consent checkbox is pre-checked. Consequently, many cookie disclaimers that were in use at that time were confirmed to be incompliant to the current data protection laws. However, even this high court judgement only refers to cookies and not to other tracking methods.
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